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Rensselaer Research Review Spring 2007 * Feature Articles Awards & Grants Recent Patents Accolades
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Venus, Earth, and Mars
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More on Argon

Argon and other noble gases are tracer elements for scientists because they are very stable and do not change over time, although certain isotopes accumulate through radioactive decay. Unlike more promiscuous elements such as carbon and oxygen, which are constantly bonding and reacting with other elements, reliable argon and her sister noble gases (helium, neon, krypton, and xenon) remain virtually unchanged through the ages. Its steady personality makes argon an ideal marker for understanding the dynamics of Earth’s interior.

“By measuring the behavior of argon in minerals, we can begin to retrace the formation of Earth’s atmosphere and understand how and if complete degassing has occurred,” Watson explained.

Emerging Belief

Watson’s team, which includes Rensselaer postdoctoral researcher Jay B. Thomas and research professor Daniele J. Cherniak, developed reams of data in support of their emerging belief that argon resides stably in crystals and migrates slowly. “We realized from our initial results that these ideas might cause a stir,” Watson said. “So we wanted to make sure that we had substantial data supporting our case.”

The team heated magnesium silicate minerals found in Earth’s mantle, which is the region of Earth sandwiched between the upper crust and the central core, in an argon atmosphere. They used high temperature to simulate the intense heat deep within the Earth to see whether and how fast the argon atoms moved into the minerals. Argon was taken up by the minerals in unexpectedly large quantities, but at a slow rate.

“The results show that argon could stay in the mantle even after being exposed to extreme temperatures,” Watson said. “We can no longer assume that a partly melted region of the mantle will be stripped of all argon and, by extension, other noble gases.”

But there is some argon in our atmosphere — slightly less than 1 percent. If it didn’t shoot through the rocky mantle, how did it get into the atmosphere?

“We proposed that argon’s release to the atmosphere is through the weathering of the upper crust and not the melting of the mantle,” Watson said. “The oceanic crust is constantly being weathered by ocean water and the continental crust is rich in potassium, which decays to form argon.”

And what about the primordial argon that was trapped in the Earth billions of years ago? “Some of it is probably still down there,” Watson said.

Looking Forward

Because Mars and Venus have mantle materials similar to those found on Earth, the theory could be key for understanding their atmospheres as well.

Watson and his team have already begun to test their theories on other noble gases, and they foresee similar results. “We may need to start reassessing our basic thinking on how the atmosphere and other large-scale systems were formed,” he said.

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