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Reactive ammonia in the solar protoplanetary disk and the origin of Earth’s nitrogen


Terrestrial nitrogen isotopic compositions are distinct from solar and cometary values and similar to those of primitive meteorites, suggesting that Earth’s atmospheric nitrogen originates from a primordial cosmochemical source1,2. Prebiotic organic compounds containing nitrogen that formed in the solar protoplanetary disk, such as amino acids, may have contributed to the emergence of life on Earth3,4. However, the original reservoirs of these volatile compounds and the processes involved in their distribution and chemical modification before accretion remain unclear. Here we report the occurrence of the mineral carlsbergite (chromium nitride) within nanocrystalline sulphide inclusions of primitive chondritic meteorites using transmission electron microscopy and secondary ion mass spectrometry. The characteristics and occurrence of carlsbergite are consistent with precipitation from a chromium-bearing metal in the presence of reactive ammonia. The carlsbergite crystals have nitrogen isotopic compositions that differ from ammonia in cometary ices, but are similar to Earth’s atmospheric nitrogen. We suggest that the reactive ammonia proposed to have initiated formation of the carlsbergite came from ices within regions of the protoplanetary disk that were affected by the distal wakes of shock waves. Our findings imply that these primordial ammonia-bearing ices were a nitrogen reservoir within the formation region of the chondritic meteorite parent bodies and could have been a source of volatiles for the early Earth.

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Figure 1: Mineralogy of PCS grain 98F03 from Y-791198.
Figure 2: Localization of nitrogen by NanoSIMS.
Figure 3: Kinetic evolution of the nitriding potential in gas mixtures between solar gas and an ice-derived gas with Hale–Bopp-like species composition.
Figure 4: Gas mixing at 750 K between solar gas (diamonds) and an ice-derived gas of Hale–Bopp-like elemental composition (circles).


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Funding was provided by the German Research Foundation (DFG) through grant LA 830/14-1 (F.L.). We gratefully acknowledge the National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR, Japan) for providing us with the meteorite samples.

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D.H. and F.L. conducted the SEM and TEM work, P.H. and D.H. conducted the NanoSIMS work. D.H. contributed the modelling and wrote most of the paper with input from P.H. and F.L.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dennis Harries.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Harries, D., Hoppe, P. & Langenhorst, F. Reactive ammonia in the solar protoplanetary disk and the origin of Earth’s nitrogen. Nature Geosci 8, 97–101 (2015).

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