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Uranium isotope variations in nature: mechanisms, applications, and implications

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Historically, uranium has received intense study of its chemical and isotopic properties for use in the nuclear industry, but has been largely ignored by geoscientists despite properties that make it

Historically, uranium has received intense study of its chemical and isotopic properties for use in the nuclear industry, but has been largely ignored by geoscientists despite properties that make it an intriguing target for geochemists and cosmochemists alike. Uranium was long thought to have an invariant 238U/235U ratio in natural samples, making it uninteresting for isotopic work. However, recent advances in mass spectrometry have made it possible to detect slight differences in the 238U/235U ratio, creating many exciting new opportunities for U isotopic research. Using uranium ore samples from diverse depositional settings from around the world, it is shown that the low-temperature redox transition of uranium (U6+ to U4+) causes measurable fractionation of the 238U/235U ratio. Moreover, it is shown experimentally that a coordination change of U can also cause measurable fractionation in the 238U/235U ratio. This improved understanding of the fractionation mechanisms of U allows for the use of the 238U/235U ratio as a paleoredox proxy. The 238U/235U ratios of carbonates deposited spanning the end-Permian extinction horizon provide evidence of pronounced and persistent widespread ocean anoxia at, or immediately preceding, the extinction boundary. Variable 238U/235U ratios correlated with proxies for initial Cm/U in the Solar System's earliest objects demonstrates the existence of 247Cm in the early Solar System. Proof of variable 238U/235U ratios in meteoritic material forces a substantive change in the previously established procedures of Pb-Pb dating, which assumed an invariant 238U/235U ratio. This advancement improves the accuracy of not only the Pb-Pb chronometer that directly utilizes the 238U/235U ratio, but also for short-lived radiometric dating techniques that indirectly use the 238U/235U ratio to calculate ages of Solar System material.

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Date Created
  • 2011

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Examining the limitations of 238U/235U in marine carbonates as a paleoredox proxy

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Variations of 238U/235U in sedimentary carbonate rocks are being explored as a tool for reconstructing oceanic anoxia through time. However, the fidelity of this novel paleoredox proxy relies on characterization

Variations of 238U/235U in sedimentary carbonate rocks are being explored as a tool for reconstructing oceanic anoxia through time. However, the fidelity of this novel paleoredox proxy relies on characterization of uranium isotope geochemistry via laboratory experimental studies and field work in modern analog environmental settings. This dissertation systematically examines the fidelity of 238U/235U in sedimentary carbonate rocks as a paleoredox proxy focusing on the following issues: (1) U isotope fractionation during U incorporation into primary abiotic and biogenic calcium carbonates; (2) diagenetic effects on U isotope fractionation in modern shallow-water carbonate sediments; (3) the effects of anoxic depositional environments on 238U/235U in carbonate sediments.

Variable and positive shifts of 238U/235U were observed during U uptake by primary abiotic and biotic calcium carbonates, carbonate diagenesis, and anoxic deposition of carbonates. Previous CaCO3 coprecipitation experiments demonstrated a small but measurable U isotope fractionation of ~0.10 ‰ during U(VI) incorporation into abiotic calcium carbonates, with 238U preferentially incorporated into the precipitates (Chen et al., 2016). The magnitude of U isotope fractionation depended on aqueous U speciation, which is controlled by water chemistry, including pH, ionic strength, carbonate, and Ca2+ and Mg2+ concentrations. Based on this speciation-dependent isotope fractionation model, the estimated U isotope fractionation in abiotic calcium carbonates induced by secular changes in seawater chemistry through the Phanerozoic was predicted to be 0.11–0.23 ‰. A smaller and variable U isotope fractionation (0–0.09 ‰) was observed in primary biogenic calcium carbonates, which fractionated U isotopes in the same direction as abiotic calcium carbonates. Early diagenesis of modern shallow-water carbonate sediments from the Bahamas shifted δ238U values to be 0.270.14 ‰ (1 SD) higher than contemporaneous seawater. Also, carbonate sediments deposited under anoxic conditions in a redox-stratified lake—Fayetteville Green Lake, New York, USA— exhibited elevated δ238U values by 0.160.12 ‰ (1 SD) relative to surface water carbonates with significant enrichments in U.

The significant U isotope fractionation observed in these studies suggests the need to correct for the U isotopic offset between carbonate sediments and coeval seawater when using δ238U variations in ancient carbonate rocks to reconstruct changes in ocean anoxia. The U isotope fractionation in abiotic and biogenic primary carbonate precipitates, during carbonate diagenesis, and under anoxic depositional environments provide a preliminary guideline to calibrate 238U/235U in sedimentary carbonate rocks as a paleoredox proxy.

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  • 2018

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The Possible Photochemical Origins of Banded Iron Formations

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Banded iron formations (BIFs) are among the earliest possible indicators for oxidation of the Archean biosphere. However, the origin of BIFs remains debated. Proposed formation mechanisms include oxidation of Fe(II)

Banded iron formations (BIFs) are among the earliest possible indicators for oxidation of the Archean biosphere. However, the origin of BIFs remains debated. Proposed formation mechanisms include oxidation of Fe(II) by O2 (Cloud, 1973), photoferrotrophy (Konhauser et al., 2002), and abiotic UV photooxidation (Braterman et al., 1983; Konhauser et al., 2007). Resolving this debate could help determine whether BIFs are really indicators of O2, biological activity, or neither.

To examine the viability of abiotic UV photooxidation of Fe, laboratory experiments were conducted in which Fe-bearing solutions were irradiated with different regions of the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum and Fe oxidation and precipitation were measured. The goal was to revisit previous experiments that obtained conflicting results, and extend these experiments by using a realistic bicarbonate buffered solution and a xenon (Xe) lamp to better match the solar spectrum and light intensity.

In experiments reexamining previous work, Fe photooxidation and precipitation was observed. Using a series of wavelength cut-off filters, the reaction was determined not to be caused by light > 345 nm. Experiments using a bicarbonate buffered solution, simulating natural waters, and using unbuffered solutions, as in prior work showed the same wavelength sensitivity. In an experiment with a Xe lamp and realistic concentrations of Archean [Fe(II)], Fe precipitation was observed in hours, demonstrating the ability for photooxidation to occur significantly in a simulated natural setting.

These results lead to modeled Fe photooxidation rates of 25 mg Fe cm-2 yr-1—near the low end of published BIF deposition rates, which range from 9 mg Fe cm-2 yr-1 to as high as 254 mg Fe cm-2 yr-1 (Konhauser et al., 2002; Trendall and Blockley, 1970). Because the rates are on the edge and the model has unquantified, favorable assumptions, these results suggest that photooxidation could contribute to, but might not be completely responsible for, large rapidly deposited BIFs such those in the Hamersley Basin. Further work is needed to improve the model and test photooxidation with other solution components. Though possibly unable to fully explain BIFs, UV light has significant oxidizing power, so the importance of photooxidation in the Archean as an environmental process and its impact on paleoredox proxies need to be determined.

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Date Created
  • 2017