Silicate Earth’s missing niobium may have been sequestered into asteroidal cores

Carsten Münker, Raúl O. C. Fonseca & Toni Schulz

Nature Geoscience


“Geochemical models describing the behaviour of niobium during Earth’s growth rely on the general paradigm that niobium was delivered by Earth’s asteroidal building blocks at chondritic abundances. This paradigm is based on the observation that niobium is traditionally regarded as a refractory and strongly lithophile element, and thus stored in the silicate portions of Earth and differentiated asteroids. However, Earth’s silicate mantle is instead selectively depleted in niobium, in marked contrast to the silicate mantles of many asteroids and smaller planets that apparently lack any significant depletion in niobium. Here we present results of high-precision measurements for niobium and other lithophile elements in representative meteorites from various small differentiated asteroids. Our data, along with the results of low-pressure experiments, show that in more reduced asteroids—such as Earth’s first building blocks—niobium is moderately chalcophile and more so than its geochemical twin tantalum by an order of magnitude. Accordingly, niobium can be sequestered into the cores of more reduced asteroids during differentiation via the segregation of sulfide melts in a carbon-saturated environment. We suggest that the niobium deficit in Earth’s silicate mantle may be explained by the Earth’s silicate mantle preferentially accreting the silicate portions of reduced asteroidal building blocks.”