The useful geoneutrino

The Sudbury Neutrino Detector
A neutrino detector in Canada similar to KamLAND. Image via Wikipedia

While the wires were hot with news of neutrinos possibly having exceeded light speed as they were fired through the Alps by the Large Hadron Collider, steady research has been seeking answers rather than perhaps transmuting physicists’ hubris into a death wish. (Note:  it has to be said that  British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili has sufficient confidence that the speeding ticket issued to the neutrinos will be rescinded that he promises to eat his underpants if it is upheld.) The more tangible work concerns antineutrinos that the Earth emits, dubbed ‘geoneutrinos’ to distinguish them from extremely exotic ones from deep space which, worryingly for some, pass from one side of the Earth to the other and through us as well.  When unstable isotopes, such as those of uranium, thorium and potassium that help heat the Earth, decay they emit antineutrinos as well as electrons, helium nuclei and gamma-rays. Notoriously elusive, neutrinos and antineutrinos can now be detected with sufficient precision to make useful observations, as well as produce results that have many theoretical physicists quivering in cellars from which they emerge, from time to time, covered with chalk dust from their desperate exertions to explain a material speed faster than ‘little c’. To geoscientists, the results of an experiment using geoneutrinos at the Japanese Kamioka Liquid-Scintillator Antineutrino Detector (KamLAND), which involved 66 individuals from 15 Japanese, US and Dutch institutions, are much more interesting: they help resolve a long-standing puzzle about the source of geothermal heat that flows from the Earth’s surface at a rate of about 44 TW (The KamLAND Collaboration 2011. Partial radiogenic heat model for Earth revealed by geoneutrino measurements. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 647-651).

A model of the Earth that assumes it accreted from chondritic meteorites with well-known abundances and proportions of heat-producing U, Th and K isotopes, supported by some measurements of peridotites from the mantle, suggests that less than half the geothermal flux is radiogenic, implying that a great deal is heat originally trapped in the Earth when it formed. This view depends on several assumptions: that the Earth’s mantle is indeed chondritic below the 200 km or so from which samples have been brought by volcanism; that the core doesn’t produce any heat by radioactive decay; and that a geophysical model of a well-mixed mantle is correct. Not surprisingly, geophysical and geochemical evidence is so flimsy that many different views have had their champions: that the core contains potassium; that there is a deep, barely tapped inner-mantle layer of high heat production formed from now-rare meteoritic material, and so on. Geoneutrinos, if distinguishable from those from elsewhere in the cosmos and indeed measurable, could help home-in on one or other hypothesis. Based on a spherical balloon containing 1000 t of hydrocarbon liquids in a deep mine shaft that floats in an 18 m metal sphere filled with buoyant oil, KamLAND relies on detecting the light emitted by very rare interactions of neutrinos with protons. That is hard enough, but the site is surrounded by Japan’s 53 neutrino-emitting nuclear reactors, so a great deal of cunning operating conditions and data processing is needed to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’; at present errors are large, but now sufficiently constrained to throw light on the great heat-flux issue. The KamLAND Collaboration reports that between 16 and 68% of heat flow is due to decay of the most productive isotopes 232Th and 238U – there is insufficient 235U and 40K in the Earth for geoneutrinos generated by their decay to be meaningfully estimated. Fuzzy as the results are, they are sufficient to support the view that Earth’s ‘primordial’ heat of formation is still a major source of geothermal energy, thus narrowing down the geochemical aspects open for disputation.

  • See also: Korenaga, J. 2011. Clairvoyant geoneutrinos. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 581-582