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Carbon and sulfur budget of the silicate Earth explained by accretion of differentiated planetary embryos

Abstract

The abundances of volatile elements in the Earth’s mantle have been attributed to the delivery of volatile-rich material after the main phase of accretion1,2,3. However, no known meteorites could deliver the volatile elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulfur, at the relative abundances observed for the silicate Earth4. Alternatively, Earth could have acquired its volatile inventory during accretion and differentiation, but the fate of volatile elements during core formation is known only for a limited set of conditions4,5,6,7,8. Here we present constraints from laboratory experiments on the partitioning of carbon and sulfur between metallic cores and silicate mantles under conditions relevant for rocky planetary bodies. We find that carbon remains more siderophile than sulfur over a range of oxygen fugacities; however, our experiments suggest that in reduced or sulfur-rich bodies, carbon is expelled from the segregating core. Combined with previous constraints9, we propose that the ratio of carbon to sulfur in the silicate Earth could have been established by differentiation of a planetary embryo that was then accreted to the proto-Earth. We suggest that the accretion of a Mercury-like (reduced) or a sulfur-rich (oxidized) differentiated body—in which carbon has been preferentially partitioned into the mantle—may explain the Earth’s carbon and sulfur budgets.

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Figure 1: Experimentally measured carbon solubility in alloy melt and measured partition coefficients of carbon and sulfur between alloy melt and silicate melt.
Figure 2: Calculated carbon content in alloy as a function of alloy/silicate mass ratio and initial carbon content in the MO.
Figure 3: Calculated carbon and sulfur contents in the silicate of a highly reduced or an S-rich body.
Figure 4: Carbon content of the Earth’s mantle after accretion of a highly reduced or a sulfur-rich planetary embryo.

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Acknowledgements

Y.L. thanks A. Boujibar for discussion on topics related to the present work. NASA grant NNX13AM51G to R.D. supported this work. R.D. also acknowledges a NSF grant EAR-1053816 that established the Rice University’s multi-anvil facility used in this study.

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Y.L. and R.D. conceived the project. Y.L. performed all the experiments, FTIR and Raman analyses of experimental glasses. B.M., Y.L. and N.S. performed the SIMS analyses. K.T. performed the electron microprobe analyses. Y.L. and R.D. analysed and interpreted all the data and co-wrote the paper. All authors commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Yuan Li or Rajdeep Dasgupta.

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Li, Y., Dasgupta, R., Tsuno, K. et al. Carbon and sulfur budget of the silicate Earth explained by accretion of differentiated planetary embryos. Nature Geosci 9, 781–785 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2801

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