Earth Factories, Not Exploding Stars, May Form Elements
What textbooks have taught for decades about
the origin of elements may not be completely true
What? Elements form in the earth, not in the interiors of stars? It sounds extraordinary, but the American Institute of Physics seems like a credible source. Consider their novel proposal.
Challenging the Big Bang Puzzle of Heavy Elements (AIP Advances News). How dare the American Institute of Physics challenge the big bang consensus and the conventional wisdom that heavy elements are produced inside stars. Who do they think they are? Well, physicists. They know a thing or two about elements. Moreover, a prestigious institute of physicists is not likely to give voice to crackpots.
It has long been theorized that hydrogen, helium, and lithium were the only chemical elements in existence during the Big Bang when the universe formed, and that supernova explosions, stars exploding at the end of their lifetime, are responsible for transmuting these elements into heavier ones and distributing them throughout our universe.
Researchers in Japan and Canada are now challenging a piece of the Big Bang puzzle. Do all of the elements heavier than iron really originate from stars exploding, or are some created deep within the Earth’s mantle, thanks to convection dynamics driven by plate tectonics?
This radical alternative theory has been published in AIP Advances 11, 105113 (2021) by three physicists from Japan and Canada, Fukuhara et al., under the title, “Earth factories: Creation of the elements from nuclear transmutation in Earth’s lower mantle.” Earth factories? Well, conceivably the formation of elements could be taking place wherever heat and pressure is sufficient to furnish the necessary conditions for nuclear reactions. That could be the interiors of stars, or it could be the interior of the Earth, where temperatures of ≥2510 degrees Kelvin and pressures of ≥58 gigapascals are thought to exist. The Abstract explains,
Stellar nucleosynthesis is a widely acknowledged theory for the formation of all elements in our universe; traditionally, we say that the highest mass stars transmuted lighter elements into heavier elements lighter than iron. Here, we propose that the formation of 25 elements with smaller atomic numbers than iron resulted from an endothermic nuclear transformation of two nuclei confined in the natural compound lattice core of the Earth’s lower mantle at high temperatures and pressures. This process is accompanied by the generation of neutrinos and is influenced by excited electrons generated by stick-sliding during supercontinent evolution, mantle convection triggered by major asteroid collisions, and nuclear fusion in the Earth’s core. Therefore, our study suggests that the Earth itself has been able to create lighter elements by nuclear transmutation.
Scientific Revolution Underway?
No one should leap on a new theory without adequate debate and testing. An important consideration, however, is that very well-accepted theories with a long track record are never immune from challenge. Think of major scientific revolutions in the past. Scientists must never be cocky that they have “arrived” at the truth. History should remind us that scientific ‘truths’ are tentative at best.
Lead author Mikio Fukuhara had earlier proposed an Earth origin for nitrogen, oxygen and water. Now, he and colleagues have extended the theory to lighter elements up to Iron (atomic number 26). The implications of a paradigm change of this magnitude are profound:
If accurate, this is a revolutionary discovery because “it was previously theorized that all of these elements were sourced from supernova explosions, whereas we postulate a supplementary theory,” Fukuhara said.
This work will have a considerable impact on the field of geophysics and may, as a result, “indicate possible research directions for the potential to create the elements required for future space development,” said Fukuhara.
Implications of the Theory
For one thing, it seems easier to get a planet’s elements locally than to hope for tiny fragments exploded from supernovae to supply them. That has always been a sticking point in the old theory. A planetary disk around the early Sun would have needed copious amounts of heavy elements by supernova delivery to end up with their present abundances on Earth and the other rocky planets.
Another implication is that elements could be cooked inside Jupiter, Saturn, and many other bodies in the solar system, to say nothing of brown dwarfs and exoplanets where nucleosynthesis was thought impossible. This doesn’t mean that supernovas do not supply heavy elements. It just means that they may not be the only sources.
One other implication brought out by the authors is that Earth could have a steady supply of vital elements in its atmosphere without having to rely on the initial abundances, some of which are continuously escaping to space. It simultaneously questions the notion that these elements must have been replenished by asteroid collisions.
Even if one considers the collision of asteroids over the past 2.5 × 109 years, the sum of all asteroid masses could not exceed over 1016 kg. On the other hand, recent research has reported that large amounts of terrestrial N2, noble gases, and O2 have been transported to the Moon via solar wind. This suggests that the atmospheric mass is continuously dispersed into space, and thus, our atmosphere could not keep the pressure needed to support life on Earth without a continuous resupply of these gasses from Earths’ interior.
For the new theory to work, it needs a mechanism for transporting the elements from the mantle to the crust and atmosphere. The authors feel that plate tectonics can fulfill that need. Plate tectonics can drive elements from where they form under subducting plates back up to the surface.
Bold New Ideas Can Be Good for Science
The authors propose observational tests for the new model, and make predictions. They are also working on extending the theory. “The formation of elements heavier than iron will be described in a future paper,” they promise. Is that where rare earth elements and other biologically-important elements could come from, right under our feet? It’s a bold proposal. It might even help future spacecraft engineers find or produce necessary elements without having to wait for the Supernova delivery train. “This study will have a great impact on the geophysical field and as a result will indicate the possible research directions for the potential for the creation of the elements required in future space development,” they conclude. A good theory generates more research.
We don’t know what to think of this proposal yet, but it is encouraging to see bold new thinking that challenges a stale consensus. Certainly testing and observations will be required to support the new model. It’s possible, too, that observations will falsify it. But if it gains support among physicists, it might also relieve arguments raised by old-Earthers that it would take billions of years for supernovas to supply the elemental abundances we find on our planet. Advocates of intelligent design could also find additional evidence that our Privileged Planet was designed with mechanisms for supplying the elements needed for sustaining life. That would indicate foresight, a feature of a designing mind.
Some creation scientists have also introduced bold theories that challenge the consensus. Walt Brown, for instance, has a theory for the origin of radioactivity in the crust during the Flood when the fountains of the great deep burst open (Genesis 7:11). If so, it would show that harmful radiation that causes cancer was not part of the original “good” creation. It’s good to have alternative theories if they can be defended with rigorous math and observational evidence. They can break open a stale consensus and stimulate vigorous debate – a hallmark of good science. And so without embracing this new theory, we can hold it up for consideration in hopes that our readers will be encouraged to see that even a hard science like physics can still generate novel ideas.