Fools gold as paleo-atmospheric proxy

Pyrite or foolsgold
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From the University of Edinburgh

Fool’s gold gives scientists priceless insight into Earth’s evolution

Fool’s gold is providing scientists with valuable insights into a turning point in the Earth’s evolution, which took place billions of years ago.

Scientists are recreating ancient forms of the mineral pyrite – dubbed fool’s gold for its metallic lustre – that reveal details of past geological events.

Detailed analysis of the mineral is giving fresh insight into the Earth before the Great Oxygenation Event, which took place 2.4 billion years ago. This was a time when oxygen released by early forms of bacteria gave rise to new forms of plant and animal life, transforming the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere.

Studying the composition of pyrite enables a geological snapshot of events at the time when it was formed. Studying the composition of different forms of iron in fool’s gold gives scientists clues as to how conditions such as atmospheric oxygen influenced the processes forming the compound.

The latest research shows that bacteria – which would have been an abundant life form at the time – did not influence the early composition of pyrite. This result, which contrasts with previous thinking, gives scientists a much clearer picture of the process.

More extensively, their discovery enables better understanding of geological conditions at the time, which informs how the oceans and atmosphere evolved.

The research, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Edinburgh Collaborative of Subsurface Science and Engineering, was published in Science.

Dr Ian Butler, who led the research, said: “Technology allows us to trace scientific processes that we can’t see from examining the mineral composition alone, to understand how compounds were formed. This new information about pyrite gives us a much sharper tool with which to analyse the early evolution of the Earth, telling us more about how our planet was formed.”

Dr Romain Guilbaud, investigator on the study, said: “Our discovery enables a better understanding of how information on the Earth’s evolution, recorded in ancient minerals, can be interpreted.”

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July 22, 2011 12:48 pm

You mean fools gold is worth something? 😉
It is interesting to see how scientists use the materials at hand to try to answer some of the most basic questions however.

jack morrow
July 22, 2011 12:49 pm

From studing minerals trapped in diamonds to iron pyrite, some of these results are bound to show global warming ,if not now but soon. It is interesting though .

July 22, 2011 1:08 pm
Diamonds Pinpoint Start of Colliding Continents
ScienceDaily (July 22, 2011) — Jewelers abhor diamond impurities, but they are a bonanza for scientists. Safely encased in the super-hard diamond, impurities are unaltered, ancient minerals that can tell the story of Earth’s distant past. Researchers analyzed data from the literature of over 4,000 of these mineral inclusions to find that continents started the cycle of breaking apart, drifting, and colliding about 3 billion years ago. The research, published in the July 22, 2011, issue of Science, pinpoints when this so-called Wilson cycle began.

July 22, 2011 1:30 pm

Mineralogists used to get money from mining companies, but thanks to the leftists environmentalists and an out of control government, the only one with any money is the government. So it makes sense that a link to global warming will soon be found!

July 22, 2011 1:30 pm

“Imagine……”, pure imagination. Science it is not suppose to be equivalent to groping in the dark, however that´s the consequence of ignoring general laws, really not having any but a bunch of chaotic ideas, a kind of Picasso´s painting applied to science: Anyone can make such a canvas just by throwing paint on a cloth.

Doug in Seattle
July 22, 2011 2:24 pm

A very strange study.

July 22, 2011 2:36 pm

So the ~20% oxygen present in today’s atmosphere came from much higher carbon dioxide concentrations as a result of cyanobacteria metabolism.
So increased carbon dioxide concentrations may not be so bad after all.

July 22, 2011 3:06 pm

It makes more sense to know that it is a study using stable isotopes of iron coupled with the oxidation states of iron Fe(II)/Fe(III) and redox chemistry in the primative atmosphere/oceans due to the the presence/absence of oxygen.
Abiotic Pyrite Formation Produces a Large Fe Isotope Fractionation
Romain Guilbaud et al. Science 332, 1548 (2011);
The iron isotope composition of sedimentary pyrite has been proposed as a potential proxy to trace microbial metabolism and the redox evolution of the oceans. We demonstrate that Fe isotope fractionation accompanies abiotic pyrite formation in the absence of Fe(II) redox change. Combined fractionation factors between Fe(II)aq, mackinawite, and pyrite permit the generation of pyrite with Fe isotope signatures that nearly encapsulate the full range of sedimentary d56Fe pyrite recorded in Archean to modern sediments. We propose that Archean negative Fe isotope excursions reflect partial Fe(II)aq utilization during abiotic pyrite formation rather than microbial dissimilatory Fe(III) reduction. Late Proterozoic to modern sediments may reflect greater Fe(II)aq utilization and variations in source composition.

July 22, 2011 3:21 pm

Here’s to the mighty stromatalite, that gave us oxygen, the blue oceans and blue sky!

July 22, 2011 3:59 pm

Uh-oh…while jabbing a pyritohedron with an electron microprobe, Dr. Butler discovered a new proxy…..

July 22, 2011 4:43 pm

@Doug in Seattle
“A very strange study”
Only to those who know no Geology – which is one of the four basic branches of Science

July 22, 2011 5:18 pm

Interesting, but the press release itself lacks meat. Thanks to Verity Jones for the additional details!

David Falkner
July 22, 2011 6:46 pm

Neat. My favorite geological word? Oolitic.

July 22, 2011 6:57 pm
Doug in Seattle
July 22, 2011 7:00 pm

ianl8888 says:
July 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm
@Doug in Seattle
“A very strange study”
Only to those who know no Geology – which is one of the four basic branches of Science

Sorry dude B.Sc. (hons) 1981, M.S. (1996) – both in Geology.

July 22, 2011 7:12 pm

ianl8888 said:@Doug in Seattle who said: “A very strange study”
to which ianl8888 responded: “Only to those who know no Geology – which is one of the four basic branches of Science.”
No, Doug is right. I have an advanced degree in geology and found that the description provided next to no information. The response by Verity Jones clears it up.

July 22, 2011 7:32 pm

Verity Jones says:
July 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm

It makes more sense to know that it is a study using stable isotopes of iron coupled with the oxidation states of iron Fe(II)/Fe(III) and redox chemistry in the primitive atmosphere/oceans due to the the presence/absence of oxygen.
Abiotic Pyrite Formation Produces a Large Fe Isotope Fractionation
Romain Guilbaud et al. Science 332, 1548 (2011);

I’m going to politely ask about a few points in the writeup for the study, which may imply a few questions about the study itself.
My 60 lb stromatolite fossil on the shelf behind me is 3.5 billion years old, which differs significantly from their 2.5 billion year comparison: Does a billion years of a increasingly different CO2-to-O2+N2 atmosphere ratio affect their proxy study since the condition at -3.6 BYA would be quire different from those at -2.5 BYA?
The remark that they are “recreating” iron peroxides (fools gold) to study ancient fossils can’t be right: They may be analyzing or modifying or treating or bombarding or radiating or probing modern iron oxide samples in a way that might approximate the ancient water and atmospheric conditions; but that can only “simulate” what they think (assumez0 was present at some part of the 100-odd thousand years it takes to “grow” a stromatolite mass. Make any errors in their assumptions of initial conditions …….

July 22, 2011 8:36 pm

Hmmm, “recreating iron peroxides to study ancient fossils”…….
I have grave doubts about any “experiment” or “research”, at the School of Geology, in Edinburgh University. This is the home turf of the very shady Carbon Capture Consortium, the dubious Roasted Tree Carbon Sequestration scheme, and the otiose Edinburgh Centre on Climate Change.
The entire College of Science appears tainted by that kind of bunkum. Sadly, the very place where Chemist Joseph Black first discovered and isolated CO2, and where the Father of Geology himself, James Hutton, discovered the immense age of planet Earth, has now become a hotbed of bogus “research” and hokum “science”, so it would seem.

Mark Hladik
July 22, 2011 8:54 pm

To racookepe1978:
Iron ‘per-oxides’ or iron sulfides?

Pete H
July 22, 2011 10:15 pm

More interesting is how woodentop July 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm has beaten the spam filter and the moderators again!

July 22, 2011 10:47 pm

Jest lucky perhaps …. 8<)

Alan the Brit
July 23, 2011 4:33 am

Interesting stuff. Now let me see. Global Circulation Models have allegedly (I have no scientific evidence that they have proven) replicated past ancient climates & climatic events. These GCMs we are told have been built to obey the laws of physics, & science as we understand it, etc. So, if our understanding of basic science changes through research in other fields, making other aspects of science clearer to understand, does this not now potentially make the GCMs flawed by default? Just a thought, although I suspect that the high levels of man made CO2 can prove AGW when they tweak the models here, there, & everywhere. If I can’t make a retaining wall work under a factor of safety of 2 as per usual, & if circumstance are right, if I take an engineering judgement based upon knowledge & experience, & I know that the wall whilst important, is outside the scope of Building Regulations, I can reduce the FoS accordingly in my analysis programme to say 1.5 (no less), & get it to pass! Simples. Likewise if one has a potential collapse situation on site, say a beam whether timber,steel,or concrete,etc, is potentially defective & at risk of failure, (where lives are at risk), one gets the temporary works in place PDQ. Then, & only then can one examine those suspect elements, carry out some basic checks, through some numbers at them to see what’s what, so that the appropriate remedial works can be undertaken, if any! The difference is that I am prepared to make a professional judgement call, weighing up the potential risks, knowing the conservative approach of structural deigns, & stick my neck on the line ready to be held accountable for my actions. Then again, I am just a humble Chartered Structural Engineer in a commercial field, not a Climate Scientist !!!!!!!!!!!! :-))

July 23, 2011 8:02 am

OK this study of pyrite enhances our understanding, sharpens our tools for research etc, but what did the study actually find??
The article is frustratingly vague on substance, only saying something like “we thought bacteria affected the process before but now we dont”. What process? How?
Its almost as if chunks of content have been edited out. What didn’t they like?

Larry Fields
July 23, 2011 6:35 pm

phlogiston says:
July 23, 2011 at 8:02 am
“OK this study of pyrite enhances our understanding, sharpens our tools for research etc, but what did the study actually find??”
I second the motion. Aside from the non-role of ancient bacteria, the article revealed precious little that was not contained the title. No offense, but this is vacuous gee-whiz pop sci pablum at it’s worst. I’m very surprised that it slipped past the usually excellent team of WUWT moderators.

July 24, 2011 5:07 pm

I’m with the “lack of content” consensus here Anthony. Are Drs Butler and Guilbaud ‘pulling their punches’ to disguise their ‘end game’ here?
I’m aware that there are two ‘main’ “Great Oxygenation Event” scenarios/theories. One involves the growth, en mass, of an oxygenating bacterium/bacteria (seems rather a slow process when it’s a ‘slow growing/dying’ bacterium/bacteria) and the other a cataclysmic collision with the planet Thea (now our current Moon) which also needs a period for ‘normalisation’ after the event, but also adds to the ‘crustal fracture’ scenario that gives the ‘continental platelet’ theory and Earth’s ‘over-spin’ (that generates Earth’s tidal features and is increasing our Moon’s orbital height) characteristic more credence.
I think they are looking to fortify the ‘Thea’ argument. An improvement to geological forensics will improve our current geological understanding. What are your thoughts?
Best regards, Ray.

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