Strong Premelting Effect in the Elastic Properties of hcp-Fe Under Inner-Core Conditions

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Science  25 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6157, pp. 466-468
DOI: 10.1126/science.1243651

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On the Brink of Melting

The considerable pressures and temperatures of Earth's iron-rich inner core make it a challenge to compare measurements made in experimental systems with observed seismic data. Computational simulations of core materials may reconcile any apparent differences. Martorell et al. (p. 466, published online 10 October) used ab initio simulations to predict the elastic properties of iron at core pressures. As temperatures approached the melting point of pure iron, the material was predicted to weaken to the point that seismic waves would be slowed considerably. An inner core with a small percentage of light elements like oxygen and silicon near its melting temperature would correspond well with measured seismic velocities.


The observed shear-wave velocity VS in Earth’s core is much lower than expected from mineralogical models derived from both calculations and experiments. A number of explanations have been proposed, but none sufficiently explain the seismological observations. Using ab initio molecular dynamics simulations, we obtained the elastic properties of hexagonal close-packed iron (hcp-Fe) at 360 gigapascals up to its melting temperature Tm. We found that Fe shows a strong nonlinear shear weakening just before melting (when T/Tm > 0.96), with a corresponding reduction in VS. Because temperatures range from T/Tm = 1 at the inner-outer core boundary to T/Tm ≈ 0.99 at the center, this strong nonlinear effect on VS should occur in the inner core, providing a compelling explanation for the low VS observed.

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