High-pressure researchers in Bayreuth solve meteorite mystery
Universität Bayreuth, Presse Release No. 065/2017,12 June 2017
A research group at the University of Bayreuth has found a long-sought explanation for the apparent contradictions implicit in the composition of lunar and Martian meteorites. In cooperation with the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble and research partners in Lyon and Vienna, the Bayreuth scientists led by Prof. Leonid Dubrovinsky were able to demonstrate how meteorites could contain within narrow spaces minerals whose formation conditions are quite different. These findings have now been published in the journal Nature Communications, providing new impetus for meteorite research.
When asteroids or comets collide with the moon or Mars, it results in high pressure and high temperatures that abruptly alter the rocks at the point of impact. Chunks of the altered rocks are often catapulted down to Earth. Many of these meteorites have puzzled scientists, mainly for two reasons:
First, they contain Seifertite, a mineral formed from silicon dioxide (SiO2) under extreme pressure. Asteroid and comet impacts that produce such high pressure would had to have been so intense that they would have melted or shattered large areas of rock on the moon and Mars. However, research does not suggest that any such catastrophes ever occurred.
Second, Seifertite is often found right next to the mineral cristobalite, which forms from silicon dioxide at considerably lower pressures.
Scientists at the University of Bayreuth’s Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics (BGI) have now succeeded in explaining this strange meteorite composition. The X-ray facilities PETRA III and DESY in Hamburg and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble enabled researchers to expose cristobalite samples to intensive radiation and high pressures of up to 83 gigapascals, which corresponds to around 820,000 times the pressure of the earth’s atmosphere. The diffraction pattern of the X-ray illustrated how the mineral was altered under various pressures. A crucial difference was found to exist between hydrostatic pressure, where the mineral was compressed from all directions with equal strength, and non-hydrostatic pressure, in which the mineral is compressed unevenly creating strong tensions. The researchers were surprised by the findings:
High non-hydrostatic pressure transforms cristobalite to Seifertite – even if it is weaker than the extremely high pressure that would be required to form Seifertite directly from silicon dioxide.
However, when cristobalite is exposed to high pressure that only varies slightly from the uniformity of hydrostatic pressure, it develops a new crystalline structure. This structure, cristobalite X-I, had never been observed in a silicate. As soon as the “quasi-hydrostatic” pressure decreases, the cristobalite reverts to its original structure
A model of the crystal structure of cristobalite X-I, which had never before been discovered in other materials. This high-pressure phase of cristobalite is made up of two layers (green and blue), each composed of Si₆O. Image: Leonid Dubrovinsky.
These findings suggest a simple solution to the puzzle of the meteorite: the Seifertite contained in the meteorite is not necessarily a product of extreme impacts that had dramatic effects on the moon and Mars. It can rather be formed, as a result of less severe impacts, from cristobalite under lower – yet still quite high – non-hydrostatic pressures. “The cristobalite that borders the Seifertite can be explained as having been formed under decreasing pressure from cristobalite X-I; the latter only formed temporarily under quasi-hydrostatic pressure,” explains Dr. Ana Černok from Bayerisches Geoinstitut (BGI) at the University of Bayreuth, who is now based at the Open University in the UK as a Marie Curie Fellow. “The assumption that both quasi-hydrostatic and non-hydrostatic pressures can arise within a narrow space when the moon, Mars, or other planets are abruptly struck meshes well with previous findings in the field of meteorite research,” Prof. Dubrovinsky adds.
Dubrovinsky emphasizes that the new findings are of the utmost importance for meteorite research: “Minerals such as cristobalite and Seifertite do not per se allow one to draw any clear conclusions about the formation of the meteorites. Our measurements have shown that identical crystals can have very different origins. It also became clear that there is another factor – in addition to high pressures and high temperatures – that should be considered more seriously in analyses of meteorites: namely, the (sometimes extremely high) mechanical tensions that result from varying pressure zones on the rock structure.”
Mineralogical research with international partners
Cristobalite is named after the Mexican volcano San Cristobal, where the rock was originally found and described in 1884. State-of-the-art technology has now made it possible to discover and describe the unusual structure of cristobalite X-I. In addition to BGI in Bayreuth, DESY in Hamburg and ESRF in Grenoble, the University of Vienna and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS, ENS) in Lyon were also involved. “In Lyon we were able to find out important information about the dynamic stability of cristobalite X-I at high pressure” said Dr. Razvan Caracas (Lyon), formerly a member of the Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics (BGI). “Our investigations using the transmission electron microscopy instrumentation in Bayreuth showed that cristobalite X-I reverts to its original form of cristobalite when pressure decreases – this was also a significant contribution to solving the puzzle of the meteorite,” added Dr. Katharina Marquardt, postdoctoral researcher at the BGI.
Seifertite is named after Bayreuth mineralogist Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Friedrich Seifert, founder and long-time director of the Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics. Prof. Dr. Ahmed El Goresy of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz first discovered the mineral in Martian meteorites. At his suggestion, the International Mineralogical Association (IMA) decided to name the mineral “Seifertite” in 2004.
Ana Černok, Katharina Marquardt, Razvan Caracas, Elena Bykova, Gerlinde Habler, Hanns-Peter Liermann, Michael Hanfland, Mohamed Mezouar, Ema Bobocioiu, and Leonid Dubrovinsky, Compressional pathways of α-cristobalite, structure of cristobalite X-I, and towards the understanding of seifertite formation.
Nature Communications, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15647.
Dr. Ana Černok, the lead author, was awarded a doctorate at the University of Bayreuth in 2016 for her thesis on cristobalite and coesite. While she worked on her dissertation, available at https://eref.uni-bayreuth.de/29913/, she was supported by the University of Bayreuth Graduate School.
Prof. Dr. Leonid Dubrovinsky
Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics (BGI)
University of Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-3736 or -3707
University of Bayreuth
Universitätsstr. 30 / ZUV
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-5356