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Rock comminution as a source of hydrogen for subglacial ecosystems

An Erratum to this article was published on 27 November 2015

This article has been updated


Substantial parts of the beds of glaciers, ice sheets and ice caps are at the pressure melting point1. The resulting water harbours diverse subglacial microbial ecosystems2,3 capable of affecting global biogeochemical cycles4,5. Such subglacial habitats may have acted as refugia during Neoproterozoic glaciations6. However, it is unclear how life in subglacial environments could be supported during glaciations lasting millions of years because energy from overridden organic carbon would become increasingly depleted7,8. Here we investigate the potential for abiogenic H2 produced during rock comminution to provide a continual source of energy to support subglacial life. We collected a range of silicate rocks representative of subglacial environments in Greenland, Canada, Norway and Antarctica and crushed them with a sledgehammer and ball mill to varying surface areas. Under an inert atmosphere in the laboratory, we added water, and measured H2 production with time. H2 was produced at 0 °C in all silicate–water experiments, probably through the reaction of water with mineral surface silica radicals formed during rock comminution. H2 production increased with increasing temperature or decreasing silicate rock grain size. Sufficient H2 was produced to support previously measured rates of methanogenesis under a Greenland glacier. We conclude that abiogenic H2 generation from glacial bedrock comminution could have supported life and biodiversity in subglacial refugia during past extended global glaciations.

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Figure 1: Results of rock and mineral comminution experiments at 0 °C.
Figure 2: Gaseous H2 generation during rock comminution of three tested silicate rocks as a function of three different temperatures.
Figure 3: Temporal variation of gaseous H2 production from crushed calcite (non-silicate control) and silicate rocks.

Change history

  • 29 October 2015

    In the print version of this Letter originally published, the published online date was incorrectly stated as 21 September 2015; the correct published online date is 29 October 2015. This has been corrected in all online versions of the Letter.


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The authors acknowledge financial support from an E.U. INTERACT Transnational Access grant (to J.T.), NASA Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology programme (NNX10AT31G to M.L.S. and E.S.B.) and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NNA15BB02A to E.S.B.).

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Authors and Affiliations



J.T. conceived and designed the project. E.S.B. oversaw the microbiological analyses. N.B., E.L.J., G.L.-G., P.G.M. and J.W.M. performed the experiments and geochemical analyses. T.L.H. performed the microbiological experiments and analyses. M.L.S., M.J., D.A.H., E.H. and J.L.W. contributed materials. E.H. assisted on fieldwork. J.T., E.S.B., N.B., M.T., J.L.W. and M.L.S. co-authored the paper.

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Correspondence to J. Telling.

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Telling, J., Boyd, E., Bone, N. et al. Rock comminution as a source of hydrogen for subglacial ecosystems. Nature Geosci 8, 851–855 (2015).

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