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Earth core

Earth core

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Published by: georgecotora on Mar 22, 2011
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Volume 90 number 320 JAnuArY 2009pAges 21–28
Eos, Vol. 90, No. 3, 20 January 2009
EOS, TranSacTiOnS, amErican GEOphySical UniOn
Because o its remoteness, together withpressures rom 140 to 360 gigapascals andtemperatures rom 4000 to 7000 K, mostdirect observations o the Earth’s core prop-erties have come rom teleseismic studies,requiring large earthquake sources and well- positioned seismometers to detect weakwave signals that have traversed the Earth’sdeepest interior. The decoding o geochemi-cal signatures o the core—potentially car-ried to the surace in plumes originating atthe core-mantle boundary—aces numerouschallenges o the debated integrity o thishypothesis.For these reasons, understanding theEarth’s core requires multidisciplinaryeorts. In the past two decades,deep-  Earth scientists have unveiled a number o unusual and enigmatic phenomenao the core, including inner core anisot-ropy, dierential rotation o the inner core,ine-scale seismic heterogeneity, and thepossible existence o the preer-orientedhexagonal close packed (hcp, in whichtwo closely packed layers stack alter-nately along a crystallographic axis) and/or body-centered cubic (bcc, in whicheight atoms reside at the corners and oneatom resides at the center o the cubiccell) iron/nickel/light element alloys inthe inner core (Figure 1). In this eaturearticle, we summarize recent new indingsand rontiers about the nature o the corerom mineral physics research.
Composition of the Core
Since the discovery o the core about acentury ago, the concept o iron with 5–10%nickel being the dominant component o thecore has been well established. In the 1950s,Harvard University geology proessor Fran-cis Birch frst recognized that the outer coreis less dense than iron or iron-nickel alloy atrelevant pressures and temperatures o thecore.Current estimates or the density def-cit relative to iron, which requires the addi-tion o a certain amount o element or ele-ments lighter than iron, vary between 6 and10% or the outer core and 2 and 5% or theinner core.To be considered as a major light elementin the core, the element must be abundant(at least a ew percent by weight) and o lowvolatility or relatively siderophile (“iron lov-ing”) to be incorporated into the core dur-ing its ormation. The elements should parti-tion preerably to the liquid outer core andshould have physical properties such asdensity and sound velocity that match seis-mic observations o the core. These con-straints have resulted in oxygen and siliconas the likely candidates or being major lightelements in the core; with sulur account-ing or part o the density defcit (but iron- sulur alone having velocity-density relationsuncharacteristic o the core [
et al.
L. D
J.-F. L
Fig. 1. (left) An illustrated cutaway of the Earth’s interior reveals seismic anisotropy of the inner core. (middle) Representative elastic anisotropiesof single-crystal hexagonal close packed (hcp; red dashed line) and body-centered cubic (bcc; red dash-dotted line) iron from theory [ 
Belonoshkoet al.
, 2008], prefer-oriented hcp iron from static experiments at 112 gigapascals (green diamond) [ 
Antonangeli et al.
, 2004], and seismic observa-tions in the inner core (blue lines) are shown for comparison. Elastic anisotropy could be explained if the bcc iron-based alloy in the inner corehad preferable orientation along Earth’s rotation axis (similar to that of Atomium, right, a 102-meter-tall monument built for the 1958 World’s Fair inBrussels, Belgium, which forms the shape of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times) or a dominant amount of prefer-oriented hcp iron.
Mineral Physics Questto the Earth’s Core
PAGES 21–22
Eos, Vol. 90, No. 3, 20 January 2009
2007]); and with carbon and hydrogen hav-ing major drawbacks due to their high vol-atility, which could have resulted in their loss during the ormation o the planet. Cur-rent mineral physics results urther indicatethat a combination o silicon, oxygen, andpossibly sulur or carbon is needed to sat-isy all o the aorementioned constraintssimultaneously.
Structure of Iron and Its Alloys
Iron crystallizes in the bcc structure under ambient conditions. In the 1960s, high- pressure X-ray diraction revealed the exis-tence o hcp iron at pressures above approxi-mately 10 gigapascals (Figure 2). Since then,hcp iron has been ound to be stable over awide range o pressures and temperaturesapproaching the suspected core conditions.The layered structure o iron can result invarious stacking polymorphs such as theace-centered cubic (cc) phase, in which thethree most closely packed layers stack alter-nately along a crystallographic direction atabove 1200 K and room pressure. While hcpiron is the “holy grail” o the core, consider-able research attention has been paid to thebehavior o iron/nickel/light element alloysat high pressures and temperatures. In par-ticular, the addition o nickel to iron has beenound to stabilize the cc phase with respectto the hcp phase to higher pressures. Theextrapolation o the hcp-cc phase bound-ary, nevertheless, indicates that iron with10–15% nickel at inner core conditions (pres-sure above 330 gigapascals and temperatureabove approximately 4500 K) is likely stablein the hcp structure.A phase transition o solid hcp iron atcore conditions was frst proposed usingdynamic shock wave results, whereas recenttheoretical calculations suggest that hcpiron transorms into bcc iron at conditionsclose to the melting point o iron at corepressures (Figure 2) [
Voadlo et al.
, 2003;
Belonoshko et al.
, 2008]. To the surprise omineral physicists, as they generally expectto fnd the densest structures at the crush-ing pressures o the core, bcc iron with10% nickel alloy (which is not the denseststructure) was recently observed at above225 gigapascals and 3400 K [
Dubrovinskyet al.
, 2007]. The addition o a light elementsuch as silicon to iron appears to stabilizethe bcc iron alloy to much higher pressuresand temperatures. These surprising observa-tions on the existence o bcc iron alloys indi-cate that the inner core could be a mixtureo hcp and bcc iron alloys, instead o thehcp phase alone.
Sound Velocities and Seismic Anisotropy
One o the most ascinating seismic obser-vations lies in the inner core anisotropy: Seis-mic waves travel 3–4% aster along the polar axis o the Earth’s core than in the equato-rial direction. While a number o hypoth-eses have been proposed to explain theanisotropy, the general consensus is that theanisotropy is due to the preerred orientationo the iron crystals. Indeed, hcp iron displaysstrong lattice-preerred orientation with itscrystallographic c axis parallel to the com-pression axis o the high-pressure diamondanvil cell as a result o plastic basal slip. Fur-thermore, experimental measurements andab initio fnite temperature molecular dynam-ics simulations show that the maximum dier-ence in compressional wave velocity o hcpiron is 4–6% at megabar pressures [
Antonan- geli et al.
, 2004;
, 2007]. However, thesimulation o sound wave propagation in thematerial by means o the molecular dynam-ics [
Belonoshko et al.
, 2008] showed that elas-tic anisotropy o hcp iron rapidly decreaseswith increasing temperature at inner corepressures.To account or the overall 3–4% seismicanisotropy in the inner core, a predomi-nant amount o the hcp iron has to be pre-erentially aligned, suggesting the existenceo a gigantic iron crystal in the inner core.Because single-crystal bcc iron exhibits upto 12% anisotropy in the compressional wavevelocity in theoretical simulations under inner core conditions [
Belonoshko et al.
,2008], the predicted anisotropy o bcc ironwould be sufcient to explain the seismicanisotropy o the inner core. The predictedtransition rom hcp to bcc iron may explainthe variation in seismic anisotropy rom theuppermost layer toward the inner layer o theinner core.Because laboratory-measured sound veloc-ities o iron alloys generally ollow a linear compressional velocity-density relation, tra-ditionally called Birch’s law, linear extrapo-lation and interpolation using sound veloc-ity/density lines o candidate iron alloys arecommonly used to estimate the amount olight elements in the core without consideringhigh-temperature eect. Theoretical calcula-tions suggest that Birch’s law is probably valideven at high temperature [
, 2007]. It isexperimentally ound, however, that high tem-perature can aect the velocity-density lineo hcp iron at high pressures, indicating thathigh-pressure/high-temperature results areneeded to reliably interpret seismic observa-tions [
Lin et al.
, 2005].
Thermal Structure
One o the major uncertainties in mod-ern geophysics is the temperature profleo the core, inormation undamental or understanding the heat budget, thermal his-tory, and geodynamics o the Earth’s inte-rior. The solidifcation o iron alloys at theinner core/outer core boundary provides a
Fig. 2. Representative phase diagram of iron and iron-nickel alloys at high pressures and temperatures. The hcp iron is stable over a wide range of pressures and temperatures, whilebcc iron is predicted to exist in the inner core (blue dashed line) and bcc iron with 10%nickel alloy is experimentally observed at 225 gigapascals and 3400 K (blue hexagon).Melting curves of iron measured from shock waves (red diamonds) are much higher thanstatic diamond cell results (black dashed line). Shaded area indicates current survey of themelting temperatures of iron at core pressures; inset shows hcp iron with 10% nickel alloy at 195 gigapascals and 2150 K.

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