Unlocking Earth’s Origins: Nitrogen Isotopes Reveal Planetary Secrets

Chemistry Isotope Concept

A USTC-led study reveals that both early and late stages of planetary evolution are key to understanding nitrogen abundance in Earth’s silicate, offering new perspectives on the origin of Earth’s volatiles. Credit: SciTechDaily.com

This research highlights that both early melting-volatilization and late accretion of volatile-rich materials are integral to understanding the distribution of nitrogen in silicate Earth. These insights open new avenues for understanding the origins of volatiles on Earth.

A team of researchers led by Professor Wang Wenzhong from the University of Science and Technology of China’s School of Earth and Space Sciences, in partnership with international experts, examined how nitrogen isotopes fractionate during the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets. Their findings were published in Nature Communications.

Currently, the academic community primarily holds two models regarding the accretion of volatiles on Earth: the “Late Veneer” model and the “Early Evolution” model.

As nitrogen is one of the fundamental building blocks of life on Earth, a thorough examination of its accretionary and evolutionary history holds immense significance in comprehending the origin of life-related elements and the evolution of habitability on our planet.

USTC Uncovers Nitrogen's Origin and Early Evolution on Earth

Effects of early planetesimal melting-volatilization and late-stage accretion on volatiles. Credit: Wang et al.

Research Methodology

Researchers employed first-principles calculation methods to delve into the fractionation mechanism of nitrogen isotopes (14N and 15N) during the condensation of nebula materials into planetary embryos. The primary focus was on the two stages of melting-volatilization and core-mantle differentiation.

Researchers discovered that under the condition where hydrogen gas had not yet fully dissipated in the early solar nebula, melting-volatilization caused the enrichment of 14N in the planetary embryos, while core-mantle differentiation led to the enrichment of 15N in the silicate melt.

By combining first-principles calculations and observational data, researchers found that the evolution of early planetary embryos alone cannot fully explain the nitrogen isotope composition of the silicate Earth. It is necessary to consider the late-stage addition of volatile-rich materials (such as carbonaceous chondrites). The nitrogen abundance of the silicate Earth is a result of both early evolution and late-stage accretion, but the contribution of late-stage accretion to the abundance of other volatiles is limited.

This research sheds light on the fact that the two crucial stages of early planetesimal melting-volatilization and late accretion of volatile-rich materials jointly determine the nitrogen abundance in the silicate Earth, offering fresh perspectives on the understanding of the origin of volatiles on Earth.

Reference: “Early planetesimal differentiation and late accretion shaped Earth’s nitrogen budget” by Wenzhong Wang, Michael J. Walter, John P. Brodholt and Shichun Huang, 16 May 2024, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-48500-0

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