H-2-rich fluids from serpentinization: Geochemical and biotic implications
Metamorphic hydration and oxidation of ultramafic rocks produces serpentinites, composed of serpentine group minerals and varying amounts of brucite, magnetite, and/or FeNi alloys. These minerals buffer imetamorphic fluids to extremely reducing conditions that are capable of producing hydrogen gas. Awaruite, FeNi3, forms early in this process when the serpentinite minerals are Fe-rich. Olivine with the current mantle Fe/Mg ratio was oxidized during serpentinization after the Moon-forming impact. This process formed some of the ferric iron in the Earth's mantle. For the rest of Earth's history, serpentinites covered only a small fraction of the Earth's surface but were an important prebiotic and biotic environment. Extant methanogens react H-2 with CO2 to form methane. This is a likely habitable environment on large silicate planets. The catalytic properties of FeNi3 allow complex organic compounds to form within serpentinite and, when mixed with atmospherically produced complex organic matter and waters that circulated through basalts, constitutes an attractive prebiotic substrate. Conversely, inorganic catalysis of methane by FeNi3 competes with nascent and extant life.