NGDIR News Section-- Scientists have long pondered how rocky bodies in the solar system -- including our own Earth -- got their metal cores. According to research conducted by The University of Texas at Austin, evidence points to the downwards percolation of molten metal toward the center of the planet through tiny channels between grains of rock.
The finding calls into question the interpretation of prior experiments and simulations that sought to understand how metals behave under intense heat and pressure when planets are forming. Past results suggested that large portions of molten metals stayed trapped in isolated pores between the grains. In contrast, the new research suggests that once those isolated pores grow large enough to connect, the molten metal starts to flow, and most of it is able to percolate along grain boundaries. This process would let metal trickle down through the mantle, accumulate in the center, and form a metal core, like the iron core at the heart of our home planet.
The research was published on Dec. 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was the doctoral thesis of Soheil Ghanbarzadeh, who earned his Ph.D. while a student in the UT Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering (now the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering). He currently works as a reservoir engineer with BP America. Soheil was jointly advised by Hesse and Ma?a Prodanovic, an associate professor in the Hildebrand Department and a co-author.
Planets and planetesimals (small planets and large asteroids) are formed primarily from silicate rocks and metal. Part of the planet formation process involves the initial mass of material separating into a metallic core and a silicate shell made up of the mantle and the crust. For the percolation theory of core formation to work, the vast majority of metal in the planetary body must make its way to the center.
In this study, Ghanbarzadeh developed a computer model to simulate the distribution of molten iron between rock grains as porosity, or melt fraction, increased or decreased. The simulations were perfomed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center. Researchers found that once the metal starts to flow, it can continue flowing even as the melt fraction decreases significantly. This is in contrast to previous simulations that found that once the metal starts flowing, it only takes a small dip in the volume of melt for percolation to stop.
According to the computer model, only 1 to 2 percent of the initial metal would be trapped in the silicate mantle when percolation stops, which is consistent with the amount of metal in the Earth's mantle.
The researchers point to the arrangement of the rock grains to explain the differences in how well-connected the spaces between the grains are. Previous work used a geometric pattern of regular, identical grains, while this work relied on simulations using an irregular grain geometry, which is thought to more closely mirror real-life conditions. The geometry was generated using data from a polycrystalline titanium sample that was scanned using X-ray microtomography.