Diffusion-induced fractionation of niobium and tantalum during continental crust formation
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Differentiation of the Earth into its major spheres - crust, mantle and core - has proceeded dominantly through magmatic processes involving melting and melt separation. Models that describe these differentiation processes are guided by elemental abundances in the different reservoirs. Elements are fractionated between coexisting phases during partial melting, and geochemical models are generally based on the fundamental assumption that trace-element equilibrium is established between the partial melts and the restitic minerals. The element pair niobium and tantalum is key to the distinction of different melting regimes involved in crustal differentiation, but equilibrium partition models have largely failed to reproduce the Nb/Ta patterns observed in nature, posing a long-standing geochemical conundrum. Here we demonstrate that kinetic fractionation of Nb and Ta by diffusion may have produced the low Nb/Ta observed in the continental crust. On the basis of the diffusivities of Nb and Ta in rutile (TiO2) determined experimentally in this study, we conclude that equilibrium cannot be expected for the natural range of grain sizes, temperatures and time scales involved in partial melting of crustal rocks. Instead, the observed fractionation of the geochemical twins, Nb and Ta, in the silicate Earth most likely proceeds by partial - as opposed to complete - equilibration of rutile and melt. Hence, the assumption of bulk equilibrium during partial melting for the processes of crustal differentiation may not be justified, as is demonstrated here for Nb/Ta. The concept presented here is based on kinetic fractionation melting and explains the observed low Nb/Ta ratio of the continental crust. (C) 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.