Identifying the composition of the earth’s core is key to understanding how our planet formed and the current behavior of its interior. While it has been known for many years that iron is the main element in the core, many questions have remained about just how iron behaves under the conditions found deep in the earth. Now, a team led by mineral-physics researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has honed in on those behaviors by conducting extremely high-pressure experiments on the element.
"Pinpointing the properties of iron is the gold standard—or I guess ’iron standard’—for how the core behaves," says Jennifer Jackson, assistant professor of mineral physics at Caltech and coauthor of the study, which appears in the December 20 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. "That is where most discussions about the deep interior of the earth begin. The temperature distribution, the formation of the planet—it all goes back to the core."
To learn more about how iron behaves under the extreme conditions that exist in the earth’s core, the team used diamond anvil cells (DAC) to compress tiny samples of the element. The DACs use two small diamonds to squeeze the iron, reproducing the types of pressures felt in the earth’s core. These particular samples were pressurized to 171 Gigapascals, which is 1.7 million times the pressure we feel on the surface of the earth.
To complete the experiments, the team took the DACs to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where they were able to use powerful X-rays to measure the vibrational density of states of compressed iron. This information allows the researchers to determine how quickly sound waves move through iron and compare the results to seismic observations of the core.
"The vibrational properties that we were able to measure at extraordinarily high pressures are unprecedented," says Jackson. "These pressures exist in the earth’s outer core, and are very difficult to reproduce experimentally."
Caitlin Murphy, a graduate student in Jackson’s group and first author of the paper, says the group was happy to find that their data set on the vibrational properties of iron evolved smoothly over a very wide pressure range, suggesting that their pressure-dependent analysis was robust, and that iron did not encounter any phase changes over this pressure range. To help achieve these successful measurements at high pressures, the group used some innovative techniques to keep the iron from thinning out in the DACs, such as preparing an insert to stabilize the sample chamber during compression. Additionally, they measured the volume of the compressed iron sample in situ and hydrostatically loaded the iron sample with neon into the sample chamber.
"These techniques allowed us to get the very high statistical quality we wanted in a reasonable amount of time, thus allowing us to obtain accurate vibrational properties of compressed iron, such as its Grüneisen parameter," says Jackson. "The Grüneisen parameter of a material describes how its total energy changes with compression and informs us on how iron may behave in the earth’s core. It is an extremely difficult quantity to measure accurately."