Earth Science

Synchrotrons are increasingly useful in Earth Science applications. The high energy X-rays enable the study of the physics and chemistry taking place in the extreme conditions that occured during the formation of the solar system and in the interior of planets. Microfocus spectroscopy on samples such as meteorites and comet dust provide information on the environment in which they formed. Powder diffraction studies enable the mineralogical community to investigate the behaviour of naturally occurring materials and the subtle responses of known structures to changes in temperature, applied stress and chemical variations.

X-rays reveal inner structure of the Earth's ancient magma ocean

A basalt sample on a diamond anvil after probing.
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A basalt sample on a diamond anvil after probing.

PETRA III, DESY, Hamburg, Germany

Using the world's most brilliant X-ray source, scientists have for the first time peered into molten magma at conditions of the deep Earth mantle. The analysis at DESY's light source PETRA III revealed that molten basalt changes its structure when exposed to pressure of up to 60 gigapascals (GPa), corresponding to a depth of about 1400 kilometres below the surface. At such extreme conditions, the magma changes into a stiffer and denser form, the team around first author Chrystèle Sanloup from the University of Edinburgh reports in the scientific journal Nature. The findings support the concept that the early Earth's mantle harboured two magma oceans, separated by a crystalline layer. Today, these presumed oceans have crystallised, but molten magma still exists in local patches and maybe thin layers in the mantle.

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Advancements in Uranium-driven Energy

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Canadian Light Source, Saskatoon, Canada

Clean electricity generated from uranium is estimated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2.5 billion tonnes a year. Now, scientists working at the Canadian Light Source are working to make uranium use even cleaner.

Uranium today provides almost a fifth of the world’s electricity, and it is an incredibly  useful element . Saskatchewan is at the hub of the world’s uranium production, and hosts the largest mine in the world at McArthur River.

Ensuring that mining sites and their surroundings remain clean and healthy is an important focus for Saskatchewan mining companies and researchers alike. Luckily, natural wetlands at many mining sites may help sequester uranium tailings. Researchers are interested in understanding and enhancing this process in order to make nuclear power generation even cleaner and safer for the environment.

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Illuminating the Puzzle of Asteroid Itokawa

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Photon Factory, High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), Japan

Researchers have uncovered the dramatic early history of the small asteroid Itokawa by analyzing tiny granular samples returned to Earth by JAXA's Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa. The team analyzed 38 tiny grains of Itokawa samples brought back to Earth, using X-ray diffraction and high-resolution electron microscopy. Major minerals identified in Itokawa samples are: olivine, low-Ca pyroxene, high-Ca pyroxene, and plagioclase. Less abundant but common minerals are: troilite, taenite, and chromite. This suggests that Itokawa is similar in mineral composition to chondrite meteorites, the oldest and most primitive material in the solar system.

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