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Experiments on metal-silicate plumes and core formation

Short-lived isotope systematics, mantle siderophile abundances and the power requirements of the geodynamo favour an early and high-temperature core-formation process, in which metals concentrate and partially equilibrate with silicates in a deep magma ocean before descending to the core. We report results of laboratory experiments on liquid metal dynamics in a two-layer stratified viscous fluid, using sucrose solutions to represent the magma ocean and the crystalline, more primitive mantle and liquid gallium to represent the core-forming metals. Single gallium drop experiments and experiments on Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities with gallium layers and gallium mixtures produce metal diapirs that entrain the less viscous upper layer fluid and produce trailing plume conduits in the high-viscosity lower layer. Calculations indicate that viscous dissipation in metal-silicate plumes in the early Earth would result in a large initial core superheat. Our experiments suggest that metal-silicate mantle plumes facilitate high-pressure metal-silicate interaction and may later evolve into buoyant thermal plumes, connecting core formation to ancient hotspot activity on the Earth and possibly on other terrestrial planets.

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