Scientists probe Earth's core, make mystifying discovery

Colossal magnet we live on perhaps a Silicon roundabout


Scientists carrying out extreme boffinry into the makeup of the Earth's liquid core have announced that they are very puzzled to find it is not made of what they had thought it was.

The great bulk of the liquid outer core of the planet, of course, is made of molten iron. That's just as well for us and all life on Earth, as the spinning blob of superhot melted metal we all live on top of generates a tremendously powerful magnetic field which keeps off all the plasma storms and cosmic rays and suchlike deadly space radiation so that we aren't fried out of existence on a routine basis.

But theory suggests that there must also be some lighter elements mixed in to the liquid comprising the outer core, otherwise it wouldn't be the density it is. (This density can be measured by seismic observations.) Until now, scientists specialising in such matters had theorised that the light stuff mixed with the iron was most probably oxygen, which is the next most abundant stuff in the world (various still-lighter elements tending to escape into space).

But it seems this is not the case. Disappointingly perhaps, scientists have discovered this not by carrying out an exciting mole-cruiser expedition beneath the planetary crust, but by (comparatively) humdrum lab work.

“We can’t sample the core directly, so we have to learn about it through improved laboratory experiments combined with modeling and seismic data,” explains the Carnegie Institution’s Yingwei Fei.

Fei and his colleagues mixed up various alloys of iron and lighter materials and then subjected them to conditions of temperature and pressure similar to those seen in the outer core, then carried out seismic shockwave tests on them. It turned out that whatever the outer core is made of, it isn't an iron-oxygen mix.

“The research revealed a powerful way to decipher the identity of the light elements in the core. Further research should focus on the potential presence of elements such as silicon in the outer core,” says Fei.

Thus it turns out that actually silicon may be even more important than we at the Reg have always thought. The new discoveries have important implications for our understanding of how the Earth formed, and thus in turn how other planets - perhaps ones orbiting other stars - might form.

The new results are published this week in hefty boffinry mag Nature. ®


Other stories you might like

  • It's primed and full of fuel, the James Webb Space Telescope is ready to be packed up prior to launch

    Fingers crossed the telescope will finally take to space on 22 December

    Engineers have finished pumping the James Webb Space Telescope with fuel, and are now preparing to carefully place the folded instrument inside the top of a rocket, expected to blast off later this month.

    “Propellant tanks were filled separately with 79.5 [liters] of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidiser and 159 [liters of] hydrazine,” the European Space Agency confirmed on Monday. “Oxidiser improves the burn efficiency of the hydrazine fuel.” The fuelling process took ten days and finished on 3 December.

    All eyes are on the JWST as it enters the last leg of its journey to space; astronomers have been waiting for this moment since development for the world’s largest space telescope began in 1996.

    Continue reading
  • China to upgrade mainstream RISC-V chips every six months

    Home-baked silicon is the way forward

    China is gut punching Moore's Law and the roughly one-year cadence for major chip releases adopted by the Intel, AMD, Nvidia and others.

    The government-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is developing open-source RISC-V performance processor, says it will release major design upgrades every six months. CAS is hoping that the accelerated release of chip designs will build up momentum and support for its open-source project.

    RISC-V is based on an open-source instruction architecture, and is royalty free, meaning companies can adopt designs without paying licensing fees.

    Continue reading
  • The SEC is investigating whistleblower claims that Tesla was reckless as its solar panels go up in smoke

    Tens of thousands of homeowners and hundreds of businesses were at risk, lawsuit claims

    The Securities and Exchange Commission has launched an investigation into whether Tesla failed to tell investors and customers about the fire risks of its faulty solar panels.

    Whistleblower and ex-employee, Steven Henkes, accused the company of flouting safety issues in a complaint with the SEC in 2019. He filed a freedom of information request to regulators and asked to see records relating to the case in September, earlier this year. An SEC official declined to hand over documents, and confirmed its probe into the company is still in progress.

    “We have confirmed with Division of Enforcement staff that the investigation from which you seek records is still active and ongoing," a letter from the SEC said in a reply to Henkes’ request, according to Reuters. Active SEC complaints and investigations are typically confidential. “The SEC does not comment on the existence or nonexistence of a possible investigation,” a spokesperson from the regulatory agency told The Register.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021