Tectonics Study: Zircons

Michael Ackerson, Smithsonian.
May 14, 2021
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Interior of crystals seen through electron microscope
Michael Ackerson, Smithsonian.

Zircons studied by the research team, photographed using cathodoluminescence, a technique that allowed the team to visualize the interiors of the crystals using a specialized scanning electron microscope. Dark circles on the zircons are the cavities left by the laser that was used to analyze the age and chemistry of the zircons.

Scientists led by Michael Ackerson, a research geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, provide new evidence that modern plate tectonics, a defining feature of Earth and its unique ability to support life, emerged roughly 3.6 billion years ago. The study, published May 14 in the journal Geochemical Perspective Letters, uses zircons, the oldest minerals ever found on Earth, to peer back into the planet’s ancient past.

The team tested more than 3,500 zircons, each just a couple of human hairs wide, by blasting them with a laser and then measuring their chemical composition with a mass spectrometer. These tests revealed the age and underlying chemistry of each zircon. Of the thousands tested, about 200 were fit for study due to the ravages of the billions of years these minerals endured since their creation.

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