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Technique measures heat transport in the earth`s crust

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Source: ScienceDaily

Putting a new spin on an old technique, Anne M. Hofmeister, Ph.D., research professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has revolutionized scientists' understanding of heat transport in the Earth's crust, the outermost solid shell of our planet.


Temperature is an important driver of many geological processes, including the generation of magmas (molten rocks) in the deepest parts of the Earth's crust, about 30 to 40 kilometers below the surface. Yet, until recently, temperatures deep inside the Earth's crust were uncertain, mainly because of difficulties associated with measuring thermal conductivity, or how much heat is flowing through the rocks that compose the crust.

In conventional methods of measuring thermal conductivity, measurement errors arise as the temperature of a rock nears its melting point. At such high temperatures, heat is not just transported from atom to atom by vibrations, but also by radiation (light). Since conventional methods cannot separate heat flow carried by vibrations from that associated with radiation, most measurements of how efficiently rocks transport heat at high temperatures have been overestimated. Because of this experimental uncertainty, scientists have assumed rock conductivity to be constant throughout the crust in order to make advances in models describing Earth's geological behavior.

Laser-flash analysis

Using an industrial laser that is typically used for steel welding, Hofmeister was able to circumvent the problems that plagued the older methods. Her facility at WUSTL is the first in the world to employ such a laser for geoscience research.

Her technique, laser-flash analysis, provides much more accurate data on heat transport through rocks than conventional methods. In laser-flash analysis, a rock sample is held at a given temperature and then subjected to a laser pulse of heat, allowing Hofmeister to measure the time it takes for the heat to go from one end of the sample to the other. This measurement of thermal diffusivity, or how fast heat flows through matter, is another way to describe the thermal conductivity of a rock.

Since measuring heat transport in the crust itself is impossible, Hofmeister used the laser to measure heat transport in individual rock samples at various temperatures and then averaged across samples to represent the dynamics of the crust. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Missouri - Columbia, Peter I. Nabelek, Ph.D., professor of geological sciences, and Alan G. Whittington, Ph.D., assistant professor of geological sciences, Hofmeister applied her findings to explain geological phenomena observed in the environment.

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