Hydrogen, Hydrocarbons, and Habitability Across the Solar System

The ingredients to make an environment habitable (e.g., liquid water, chemical disequilibria, and organic molecules) are found throughout the solar system. Liquid water has existed transiently on some bodies and persistently as oceans on others. Molecular hydrogen occurs in a plume on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It can drive the reduction of CO2 to release energy. Methane has been observed in many places: from the dusty plains of Mars, to the great lakes of the Saturnian moon Titan, to the glacial wonderland that is Pluto. Organic molecules are common where volatile elements and reducing conditions prevail: these organic molecules can have diverse origins. Future space missions will attempt to illuminate the “organic solar system” and the role played by possible extraterrestrial life.

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Abiotic Hydrogen and Methane: Fuels for Life

Geologically produced (abiotic) molecular hydrogen and methane could be widely utilized by microbial communities in surface and subsurface environments. These microbial communities can, therefore, have a potentially significant impact on the net emissions of H2 and CH4 to Earth’s ocean and atmosphere. Abiotic H2 and CH4 could enable microbial communities to exist in rock-hosted environments and hydrothermal systems with little or no input from photosynthetic carbon fixation, making these communities potential analogs for the earliest metabolisms on Earth (or other planetary bodies). The possible dependence of rock-hosted ecosystems on H2 and CH4 should factor into current and future plans for engineering the subsurface for storage of these compounds as energy fuels.

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The Behavior of H2 in Aqueous Fluids under High Temperature and Pressure

The presence of H2 and H2O in planetary interiors prompts the need for fundamental studies on these compounds under corresponding conditions. Here, we summarize data on H2 properties in aqueous systems under conditions of high temperature and pressure. We explain how to measure important H2 fugacities in hydrothermal systems. We present available experimental data and thermodynamic models for H2 solubility and vapor–liquid partitioning under hydrothermal conditions. In addition, we introduce the fascinating world of H2–H2O clathrate hydrates under extreme temperatures and pressures. The properties of the H2–H2O system are well established below the critical point of water (374 °C and 22.06 MPa), but far less is known under higher temperatures and pressures, or the effect of salt.

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Abiotic Synthesis of Methane and Organic Compounds in Earth’s Lithosphere

Accumulation of molecular hydrogen in geologic systems can create conditions energetically favorable to transform inorganic carbon into methane and other organic compounds. Although hydrocarbons with a potentially abiotic origin have been proposed to form in a number of crustal settings, the ubiquitous presence of organic compounds derived from biological organic matter presents a challenge for unambiguously identifying abiotic organic molecules. In recent years, extensive analysis of methane and other organics in diverse geologic fluids, combined with novel isotope analyses and laboratory simulations, have, however, yielded insights into the distribution of specific abiotic organic molecules in Earth’s lithosphere and the likely conditions and pathways under which they form.

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Abiotic Sources of Molecular Hydrogen on Earth

The capacity for molecular hydrogen (H2) to hydrogenate oxygen and carbon is critical to the origin of life and represents the basis for all known life-forms. Major sources of H2 that strictly involve nonbiological processes and inorganic reactants include (1) the reduction of water during the oxidation of iron in minerals, (2) water splitting due to radioactive decay, (3) degassing of magma at low pressures, and (4) the reaction of water with surface radicals during mechanical breaking of silicate rocks. None of these processes seem to significantly affect the current global atmospheric budget of H2, yet there is substantial H2 cycling in a wide range of Earth’s subsurface environments, with multifaceted implications for microbial ecosystems.

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Hydrogen and Abiotic Hydrocarbons: Molecules that Change the World

Molecular hydrogen (H2), methane, and hydrocarbons with an apparent abiotic origin have been observed in a variety of geologic settings, including serpentinized ultramafic rocks, hydrothermal fluids, and deep fractures within ancient cratons. Molecular hydrogen is also observed in vapor plumes emanating from the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and methane has been detected in the atmosphere of Mars. Geologic production of these compounds has been the subject of increasing scientific attention due to their use by chemosynthetic biological communities. These compounds are also of interest as possible energy resources. This issue summarizes the geological sources of abiotic H2 and hydrocarbons on Earth and elsewhere and examines their impact on microbial life and energy resources.

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Diamond Exploration and Resource Evaluation of Kimberlites

Kimberlite rocks and deposits are the eruption products of volatile-rich, silica-poor ultrabasic magmas that originate as small-degree mantle melts at depths in excess of 200 km. Many kimberlites are emplaced as subsurface cylindrical-to-conical pipes and associated sills and dykes. Surficial volcanic deposits of kimberlite are rare. Although kimberlite magmas have distinctive chemical and physical properties, their eruption styles, intensities and durations are similar to conventional volcanoes. Rates of magma ascent and transport through the cratonic lithosphere are informed by mantle cargo entrained by kimberlite, by the geometries of kimberlite dykes exposed in diamond mines, and by laboratory-based studies of dyke mechanics. Outstanding questions concern the mechanisms that trigger and control the rates of kimberlite magmatism.

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Kimberlite Volcanology: Transport, Ascent, and Eruption

Kimberlite rocks and deposits are the eruption products of volatile-rich, silica-poor ultrabasic magmas that originate as small-degree mantle melts at depths in excess of 200 km. Many kimberlites are emplaced as subsurface cylindrical-to-conical pipes and associated sills and dykes. Surficial volcanic deposits of kimberlite are rare. Although kimberlite magmas have distinctive chemical and physical properties, their eruption styles, intensities and durations are similar to conventional volcanoes. Rates of magma ascent and transport through the cratonic lithosphere are informed by mantle cargo entrained by kimberlite, by the geometries of kimberlite dykes exposed in diamond mines, and by laboratory-based studies of dyke mechanics. Outstanding questions concern the mechanisms that trigger and control the rates of kimberlite magmatism.

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Dating Kimberlites: Methods and Emplacement Patterns Through Time

Key to deciphering the origin and tectonic setting of kimberlite magmatism is an accurate understanding of when they formed. Although determining absolute emplacement ages for kimberlites is challenging, recent methodological advances have contributed to a current database of >1,000 precisely dated kimberlite occurrences. Several profound findings emerge from kimberlite geochronology: kimberlites were absent in the first half of Earth history; most kimberlites were emplaced during the Mesozoic; kimberlite magma formation may be triggered by a variety of Earth processes (deep mantle plumes, subduction of oceanic lithosphere, continental rifting); and enhanced periods of kimberlite magmatism coincide with supercontinent breakup.

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Kimberlites from Source to Surface: Insights from Experiments

High-pressure experiments are unconvincing in explaining kimberlites as direct melts of carbonated peridotite because the appropriate minerals do not coexist stably at the kimberlite liquidus. High-pressure melts of peridotite with CO2 and H2O have compositions similar to kimberlites only at pressures where conditions are insufficiently oxidizing to stabilize CO2: they do not replicate the high K2O/Na2O of kimberlites. Kimberlite melts may begin their ascent at ≈300 km depth in reduced conditions as melts rich in MgO and SiO2 and poor in Na2O. These melts interact with modified, oxidized zones at the base of cratons where they gain CO2, CaO, H2O, and K2O and lose SiO2. Decreasing CO2 solubility at low pressures facilitates the incorporation of xenocrystic olivine, resulting in kimberlites’ characteristically high MgO/CaO.

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