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Diamonds also revealed unambiguous evidence that some hydrocarbons form hundreds of miles down, well beyond the realm of living cells: abiotic energy.

Discoveries in the Making - Graduate School | UAB

Unravelling the mystery of deep abiotic methane and other energy sources helps explain how deep life in the form of microbes and bacteria is nourished, and fuels the proposition that life first originated and evolved far below rather than migrating down from the surface world. DCO's Extreme Physics and Chemistry community scientists used diamond anvil cells -- a tool that can squeeze a sample tremendously between the tips of two diamonds, coupled with lasers that heat the compressed crystals -- to simulate deep Earth's almost unimaginable extreme temperatures and pressures.

Using a variety of advanced techniques, they analyzed the compressed samples, identified new carbon-bearing crystal structures and documented their intriguing properties and behaviors. The work provided insights into how carbon atoms in Deep Earth "find one another," aggregate, and assemble to form diamonds and other material. DCO's discoveries and research are important and applicable in many ways, including the development of new materials and potential carbon capture and storage strategies.

DCO scientists are studying, for example, how the natural timescale for sequestration of carbon might be shortened. The weathering of and microbial life inside Oman's Samail Ophiolite -- an unusual, large slab pushed up from Earth's upper mantle long ago -- offers a tutorial in nature's carbon sequestration techniques, knowledge that might help offset carbon emissions caused by humans.

In Iceland, another DCO natural sequestration project, CarbFix, involves injecting carbon-bearing fluids into basalt and observing their conversion to solids.

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Hundreds of scientists from around the world meet in Washington DC Oct. Sloan Foundation, multiplied many times by additional investment worldwide, a multidisciplinary group of 1, researchers from 55 nations worked for 10 years in four interconnected scientic "communities" to explore Earth's fundamental workings, including:.


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They met the challenge of investigating Earth's interior in several ways, producing 1, peer-reviewed papers while pursuing projects that involved, for example:. DCO scientists conducted field measurements in remote and inhospitable regions of the world: ocean floors, on top of active volcanoes, and in the deserts of the Middle East. Where instrumentation and models were lacking, DCO scientists developed new tools and models to meet the challenge.

Throughout these studies, DCO invested in the next generation of deep carbon researchers, students and early career scientists, who will carry on the tradition of exploration and discovery for decades to come. Life in the deep subsurface totals 15, to 23, megatonnes million metric tons of carbon, about to times greater than the carbon mass of all humans.

The immense Deep Earth biosphere occupies a space nearly twice as large as all the world's oceans. DCO scientists explored how microbes draw sustenance from "abiotic" methane and other energy sources -- fuel that wasn't derived from biotic life above. If microbes can eek out a living using chemical energy from rocks in Earth's deep subsurface, that may hold true on other planetary bodies.

This knowledge about the types of environments that can sustain life, particularly those where energy is limited, can guide the search for life on other planets. In the outer solar system, for example, energy from the sun is scarce, as it is in Earth's subsurface environment. DCO researchers also found the deepest, lowest-density, and longest-lived subseafloor microbial ecosystem ever recorded and changed our understanding of the limits of life at extremes of pressure, temperature, and depth. Rocks and fluids in Earth's crust provide clues to the origins of life on this planet, and where to look for life on others.

DCO scientists found amino acids and complex organic molecules in rocks on the seafloor. These molecules, the building blocks of life, were formed by abiotic synthesis and had never before been observed in the geologic record. They also found pockets of ancient salty fluids rich in hydrogen, methane, and helium many kilometers deep, providing evidence of early, protected environments capable of harboring life.

When water meets the ubiquitous mineral olivine under pressure, the rock reacts with oxygen atoms from the H2O and transforms into another mineral, serpentine -- characterized by a scaly, green-brown, snake skin-like appearance.

Discoveries in the Making

This process of "serpentinization" leads to the formation of "abiotic" methane in many different environments on Earth. DCO scientists developed and used sophisticated analytical equipment to differentiate between biotic derived from ancient plants and animals and abiotic formation of methane.

DCO field and laboratory studies of rocks from the upper mantle document a new high-pressure serpentinization process that produces abiotic methane and other forms of hydrocarbons.

The formation of methane and hydrocarbons through these geologic, abiotic processes provides fuel and sustenance for microbial life. Atmospheric CO 2 has been relatively stable over the eons but huge, occasional catastrophic carbon disturbances have taken place. DCO scientists have reconstructed Earth's deep carbon cycle over eons to the present day. This new, more complete picture of the planetary ingassing and outgassing of carbon shows a remarkably stable system over hundreds of millions of years, with a few notable episodic exceptions.

Continental breakup and associated volcanic activity are the dominant causes of natural planetary outgassing. DCO scientists added to this picture by investigating rare episodes of massive volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts to learn how Earth and its climate responds to such catastrophic carbon disturbances.

Plate tectonics modeling using DCO's new GPlates platform made it possible to reconstruct the Earth's carbon cycle through geologic time. Much of the carbon outgassed from Deep Earth seeps from fractures and faults unassociated with eruptions. This includes both emissions during volcanic eruptions and degassing of CO 2 out of diffuse fractures and faults in volcanic regions worldwide and the mid-ocean ridge system.

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