Earth's mantle and its core mix at a distance of 2900 kilometers under our feet in a mysterious zone. A team of geophysicists has just verified that the partial fusion of the mantle is possible in this area when the temperature reaches 4200 Kelvin. This reinforces the hypothesis of the presence of a deep magma ocean.
The originality of this work, carried out by the scientists of the Institut de minéralogie et de physique des milieux condensés (UPMC/Université Paris Diderot/Institut de Physique du Globe/CNRS/IRD), lies in the use of X-ray diffraction at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble (France). The results will have an effect in the understanding of the dynamics, composition and the formation of the depths of our planet.
On top of Earth's core, consisting of liquid iron, lies the solid mantle, which is made up essentially of magnesium oxides, iron and silicon. The border between the core and the mantle, located at 2900 km below Earth's surface, is highly intriguing to geophysicists. With a pressure of around 1.4 million times the atmospheric pressure and a temperature of more than 4000 Kelvin, this zone is home to chemical reactions and changes in states of matter still unknown. The seismologists who have studied this subject have acknowledged an abrupt reduction of the speed of the seismic waves, which sometimes reach 30% when getting close to this border. This fact has led scientists to formulate the hypothesis, for the last 15 years, of the partial melting of the Earth mantle at the level of this mantle-core border. Today, this hypothesis has been confirmed.
In order to access the depths of our planet, scientists have not only seismological images but also a precious experimental technique: diamond anvil cells, coupled with a heating layer. This instrument allows scientists to re-create the same pressure and temperature conditions as those in Earth's interior on samples of a few microns. This is the technique used by the researchers of the Institut de minéralogie et de physique des milieux condensés on natural samples that are representatives of Earth's mantle and that have been put under pressures of more than 140 gigapascals (or 1.4 million times the atmospheric pressure), and temperatures of more than 5000 Kelvin.
A new approach to this study has been the use of the X-ray diffraction technique at the European synchrotron (ESRF). This has allowed the scientists to determine what mineral phases melt first, and they have also established, without extrapolation, fusion curves of the deep Earth mantle -- i.e., the characterization of the passage from a solid state to a partially liquid state. Their observations show that the partial fusion of the mantle is possible when the temperature approaches 4200 Kelvin. These experiments also prove that the liquid produced during this partial fusion is dense and that it can hold multiple chemical elements, among which are important markers of the dynamics of Earth's mantle. These studies will allow geophysicists and geochemists to achieve a deeper knowledge of the mechanisms of differentiation of Earth and the history of its formation, which started around 4.5 billion years ago.
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