Green rust in Earth’s early ocean history

 

A rare kind of mineral which scientists hope could be used to remove toxic metals and radioactive species from the environment played a similar, crucial role early in Earth’s history.

Research carried out by an international team of leading biogeochemists suggests for the first time that ‘green rust’ was likely widespread in ancient oceans and may have played a vital role in the creation of our early atmosphere.

 

Led by Newcastle University, UK, the study shows that during the Precambrian period, green rust ‘scavenged’ heavy metals such as nickel out of the water. Nickel availability is linked to the production of methane by anaerobic organisms, which is a major sink for oxygen produced during photosynthesis, and thus green rust played a crucial role in the oxygenation of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Only discovered in the last decade, green rust is a highly reactive iron mineral which experts hope could be used to clean up metal pollution and even radioactive waste.

Newcastle University’s Professor Simon Poulton said this latest discovery – published this month in the academic journal Geology – proved the effectiveness of green rust as an environmental cleaner.

“Because it is so reactive, green rust has hardly ever been found before in nature and never in a water system like this,” explains Professor Poulton, who led the research team involving experts from the Universities of Newcastle, Nancy, Southern Denmark, Leeds, Brussels and Kansas, and the Canadian Light Source and Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

“The discovery of green rust in Lake Matano, Indonesia, where we carried out our experiments shows for the first time what a key role it played in our ancient oceans – scavenging dissolved nickel, a key micronutrient for methanogenesis.”

Dr Sean Crowe of the University of Southern Denmark explains: “We still know relatively little about green rust but our research shows that it is likely to be much more prevalent in the environment than has previously been recognised and the role it plays in cycling elements such as nickel and other metals is significant.

“Understanding the important role it played in our past and its effectiveness at removing metals from the environment will help us to understand how we might be able to use it to clean up polluted land and water in the future.”

The high reactivity of green rust is the reason it could be so much help in cleaning up polluted sites. The rust reduces elements like chromium, uranium and selenium, significantly reducing their solubility and mobility in the environment, and in some cases absorbing them into the rust’s molecular structure.

Professor Poulton adds: “Green rust has received a lot of attention recently due to its possible role as a pollutant mediator, but it is particularly exciting to think that this may have been a natural process throughout huge periods of ancient Earth history.”

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34 thoughts on “Green rust in Earth’s early ocean history

  1. Precambrian sea water contained plenty of iron probably as ferrous iron, which forms greenish soluble compounds, may be what this report may be about. This ferrous iron oxidized around 2Ba ago to ferric, which are insoluble, precipitating out to form the Banded Iron Formations which today are the world’s major source of iron ore. Yes these do contain minor traces of nickel.
    Would it be a good idea to go back to those times of a ferrous ocean? Emphatically no because ocean life as we know it would die out rapidly.

  2. That reminds me of the History Channel’s “How the Earth Was Made” series. The illustrations of the planet at about 4 billion years ago had green oceans:

  3. Why do I get the feeling that this will lead to far more environmental good than any amount of wind power…

  4. Reasonable good video clip from Ch4. The atmosphere did not contain only CO2 but SO2 as well as N2 and many other trace poisonous gasses like HF, HCl. The SO2 precipitated out as gypsum, which is still ongoing both the Med and Red Sea have thick beds of gypsum and halite building. It was the cyanobacteria evolution that changed the CO2 into O2 and protein. Yes atmospheric pressure would have been high, like Venus, which would have pushed temperature but it was the water that transformed the planet from Venusian furnace to a temperature thatis suitable for life by transferring heat from the surface to radiate to space using latent heat.

  5. I have voice recognition in my car – for audio controls, heater controls etc.

    For some reason, it does not obey me when I swear at it! Typical woman.

  6. The oceans were iron rich at one time, and then, due to natural processes, it was oxidated out. That process is well understood. So rusted for examples of rusted “earth”, look to Africa and Australia…and by gosh, thats where we find many minerals…

  7. No no no! Only economic self-flaggelation can clean the environment, not some chemical!

    Hehe, that’s what you expect them to say anyway.

  8. “Green rust” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_rust) is actually a talc-like mineral with ‘mixed valence states’ of iron, which allows it to exchange electrons readily. This also means that it can only be formed in a low-oxygen environment, such as the earth’s surface before 850 million years ago.
    The talc-like structure (sheets one molecule thick, covered with hydroxy groups) gives it a very large available surface area. Combined these factors make for potent abilities as a catalyst.
    The mineral has LOADS of potential, but it is too new to know exactly what that potential could be developed into.

  9. And why do I get the feeling that this is all hocus-pocus? The wording is kindergarten in tone, and the gist is mysterious and cloistered. A simple naming of this substance would have helped, but instead, they prattle on about that which ‘could’ be of great benefit, by removing some assumed bogeyman substance (again, unnamed) from the ‘environment’. Sorry, I’m not buying any of it. The earth is the way it is because that is how it is most comfy. A bunch of prattling enviro-geek mysterions suggesting that we spray everything with ‘green rust’ so as to ‘mitigate’ (itself a meaningless dodge-word) some fabricated spectre of a wasteland….oh brother.

    And that they might state: “Green rust has received a lot of attention recently due to its possible role as a pollutant mediator, but it is particularly exciting to think that this may have been a natural process throughout huge periods of ancient Earth history” says they have far too much time on their hands between Rio-style conferences. The fact that this stuff HAS NOT been active through MOST of earth history is ignored.

    It is exhausting to read such press releases….

  10. Iron Sulphate is the form that promotes algae blooms in sterile oceans that supply the bottom of the food chain. Guy that discovered it had an early unexpected heart attack and died.

  11. Nickel availability is linked to the production of methane by anaerobic organisms, which is a major sink for oxygen produced during photosynthesis, and thus green rust played a crucial role in the oxygenation of the Earth’s atmosphere.

    Nonsense.
    “Methanogenesis in microbes is a form of anaerobic respiration. Methanogens do not use oxygen to respire; in fact, oxygen inhibits the growth of methanogens.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanogenesis

  12. How does “green rust” help to punish humanity for it’s sins against the planet. What is this, some kinda “get outa jail free” card? This must be ignored, and if that fails, suppressed.

  13. The first sentence of this article uses the word species in a way that I am not familiar with. My initial thought was of a biological species, and then I considered the singular noun definition that relates to coinage. But I have so far been unable to discern what this sentence is referring to. I read the article as thoroughly as possible, but I do admit that damage from a previous accident limits my receptive skills. Could someone explain this sentence for me?

  14. It appears what they are talking about is Iron(II) Hydroxide (aka Ferrous Hydroxide). Google has good links about it. It is related to the recently discovered mineral Fougerite.

  15. Khwarizmi says:
    June 27, 2012 at 7:21 am

    “Methanogenesis in microbes is a form of anaerobic respiration. Methanogens do not use oxygen to respire; in fact, oxygen inhibits the growth of methanogens.”

    You are correct. Only traces of oxygen kill methanogenic bacteria. Co and Ni are the trace elements needed for their respiration using CoQ10 in the electron transport mechanism.

    This is why the article, as press released, does not compute.

  16. StevenK says:
    June 27, 2012 at 7:35 am

    “Species” here refers to “discrete things”. It is a generic usage that can mean elements, minerals, compounds, or mixtures of these “things”.

  17. John Marshall says:
    June 27, 2012 at 4:30 am

    … but it was the water that transformed the planet from Venusian furnace to a temperature thatis suitable for life by transferring heat from the surface to radiate to space using latent heat.
    =====

    Probably not. We really don’t understand the nature of the planet 4.5 billion years ago (yet — give us a few decades or maybe a few centuries). One of the problems that geologists struggle with is that the sun was almost certainly substantially dimmer back then. If it wasn’t, then our ideas of stellar evolution are really wrong. Not only was the planet probably not venus-like, we are having trouble figuring out how — once it radiated its initial heat load from formation — it could have been warm enough to have liquid water although it seems likely that it did.

  18. Khwarizmi says:
    June 27, 2012 at 7:21 am

    I think the point being made was CH4 oxidizes in the atmosphere to CO2, and thus methane likely was a sink for early oxygen production.

  19. Mike Bromley the Kurd says:
    June 27, 2012 at 5:52 am

    And why do I get the feeling that this is all hocus-pocus? The wording is kindergarten in tone, and the gist is mysterious and cloistered. ….

    Green, grey and blue states of iron are common in clays in marshes and swamps where low oxygen levels lead to reduced valence states of iron. I would suspect that the obscure approach here is either because the authors are treating the MSM as simpletons – not unreasonable, or they are protecting something that someone hopes is patentable. Given the “uses” jargon, I think the latter is most likely.

  20. The most uninformative press release. Couldn’t they have described the stuff. It reads like they are just speculating about the possible existence of such a thing. Commenters at WUWT, as usual, are more informative than the piece under consideration.

  21. The word species is most commonly used in biology, but it is also used in chemistry to refer to a specific kind of chemical or molecule such as CH4, L-lysine, N2 and so on.

    One thing that bothers me about these “age of” claims for the Earth, Cambrian, Triassic or whatever is that they never discuss how the system gets to “”zero” and the what is meant by a phrase such as “the age of the Earth.” One thing nobody believes is that God made the Earth ex nihilo 4.5 billion years ago. Young-Earth Creationists believe God made the Earth and the universe ex nihilo around 6kya. Scientists believe the Big Bang occurred over 12 billion years ago creating the Universe, and that the Earth was formed from supernova remnants about 4.6 billion years ago. There is too little discussion about how we got from the old giant star to the current system, and what point in the process was 4.6 bya.

  22. CRS, Dr.P.H. says:
    June 27, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Yes, polywater. I attended the seminar in which polywater was debunked. It was at Stevens Institute of Technology in NJ. That was one important event in my subsequently long scientific career when I learned not to believe almost anything I had read, but to reason it out for myself. Such “non-consensus” thinking allowed me later to invent some useful things.

  23. Hoser – The oxidation mechanism you apply to the ambiguous paragraph confers a degree of plausibility to the hypothesis that it simply doesn’t have in its published form. Good stuff.
    But methane is an unstable molecule and will dissociate without the need for oxygen. That is the reason why NASA and the European Space Agency applied the principle of mediocrity to Titan when attempting to explain the abundance of methane on the orange moon:
    “…unlike water in the Earth’s atmosphere that continually renews itself, methane is destroyed by ultraviolet light, so Titan must have a source deep inside, scientists said.”
    –Titan’s Methane Not Produced by Life, Scientists Say
    http://esse.engin.umich.edu/PSL/PRESS/Titan_Cassini_Huygens/AP_Wire_012705.pdf
    NASA moedlling suggests that dust storms and electrical charges can destroy methane.
    So do we need the green rust to explain anything?
    Afterall, “Titan exhibits many similarities to conditions that may well once have prevailed on Earth.”
    http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Cassini-Huygens/SEM3782VQUD_0.html
    These conditions include abiotic production of hydrocarbons by serpentinization, a process that is apparently not contingent on the availability of nickel.

  24. Green rust seems similar to metal chelates used to make essential trace metals soluble so that they can be taken up systemically by plants. These are widely used in agriculture; EDTA and NTA readily take up lead and heavy metals and were used to de-lead workers in the lead industry at one time. Extractive metallurgists use LIX reagents (ion exchange) as intermediaries in smelting operations – extraction of copper for instance.

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