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Inside a diamond mined from the depths of the Earth’s surface, scientists have discovered the first example of a mineral never seen before.
Named davemaoite after prominent geophysicist Ho-kwang (Dave) Mao, the mineral is the earliest example of a high pressure calcium silicate perovskite (CaSiO3) found on Earth. Another form of CaSiO3, known as wollastonite, is commonly found throughout the world, but davemaoite has a crystalline structure that forms only under high pressure and high temperatures in the Earth’s mantle, the mostly solid layer of Earth trapped between the outer core and the cortex.
Davemaoite was long expected to be an abundant and geochemically important mineral in the Earth’s mantle. But scientists have never found any direct evidence for its existence because it breaks down into other minerals when it moves to the surface and the pressure drops. However, analysis of a Botswana diamond, which formed in the mantle some 410 miles (660 kilometers) below Earth’s surface, has revealed a sample of intact davemaoite trapped within it. As a result, the International Mineralogical Association has confirmed davemaoite as a new mineral.
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“The davemaoite discovery was a surprise,” lead author Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Live Science.
Tschauner and his colleagues discovered the davemaoite sample with a technique known as synchrotron X-ray diffraction, which focuses a high-energy X-ray beam at certain points within the diamond with microscopic precision. By measuring the angle and intensity of the returning light, researchers can decipher what’s inside, Tschauner said. The davemaoite sample inside the diamond was only a few micrometers (millionths of a meter) in size, so less powerful sampling techniques would have missed it, he added.
Davemaoite is believed to play an important geochemical role in the Earth’s mantle. Scientists theorize that the mineral may also contain other trace elements, including uranium and thorium, which release heat through radioactive decay. Therefore, davemaoite can help generate a substantial amount of heat in the mantle, Tschauner said.
In a 2014 study published in the journal Science, researchers described another theoretical high-pressure mantle mineral, known as bridgmanite. However, the bridgmanite sample did not originate from the mantle but from inside a meteorite. The davemaoite discovery shows that diamonds may form further down the mantle than previously thought, and suggests that they might be the best place to search for more new mantle minerals, Tschauner said.
“The work of Tschauner et al. Inspires hope in the discovery of other difficult high-pressure phases in nature,” said Yingwei Fe, a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, who was not involved in the study, in a related science article. “Such direct sampling of the inaccessible lower mantle would fill our knowledge gap about the chemical composition of our planet’s entire mantle.”
The study appears online Nov. 11 in the journal Science.
Originally posted on Live Science.
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