DCO Project Summary

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Project Title
Deep Hydrosphere and H2- The Canadian Shield
Start DateEnd Date
2014-09-30 2014-12-01
NameRoleInstitutionDCO ID
Related GrantsDCO ID
Investigation of dissolved hydrocarbon and hydrogen gases for exploring the deep hydrosphere and biosphere and collection of samples for clumped methane isotope investigations
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Reporting Year 2015 Click to expand

  • Update 2015: Deep Hydrosphere and H2 - The Canadian Shield - submitted on Oct 02, 2015

    Update Details:

    Submitted by Barbara Sherwood Lollar, October 2015

    DE funded landmark Nature papers (Holland, Sherwood Lollar and Ballentine 2013; Sherwood Lollar, Onstott and Ballentine, 2014) redefined the deep continental crust carbon-fluid landscape; demonstrating the existence of deep carbon-fluid regimes preserved up to planetary (Ga) timescales and identifying the Precambrian continental crust as a source of hydrogen that doubles the global budget from serpentinization and radiolysis. The most recent work during 2013-2015 provided a first examination of global H2 production via water-rock reaction (serpentinization and radiolysis) from the > 70% of the continental lithosphere that is Precambrian in age. Key to the discovery is a map of global occurrences of H2 and CH4-rich deep saline groundwaters.

    Activities during this period included both field work at the mine sites across the Canadian Shield and substantial efforts from the Stable Isotope Laboratory at Toronto to support the clumped methane isotopologue work at MIT and UCLA through provisions of isotopically characterized standard materials, key field samples and cross-calibration and groundtruthing of analytical developments reflected in two papers with the Ono Lab at MIT. Samples sent to UCLA are currently under analysis. In particular the Science Express paper from MIT (Wang, Gruen, Sherwood Lollar, … and PI Ono) reflects a major outcome and accomplishment for this funding period. Important activity in this period also involved coordination with Kai Hinrichs of the DL group at Bremen to finalize, along with Verena Hauer, the VFA analysis for carbon cycling at the key Canadian Shield sites. Several additional presentations will be done at the upcoming Goldschmidt conference in Prague.

Reporting Year 2016 Click to expand

  • Update 2016: Active Sulfur Recycling in Billion-year-old Water from Canadian Shield Rocks - submitted on ,

    Update Details:

    Life at Earth’s surface relies on the sun to provide energy. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms harvest the energy in sunlight to produce sugar as a first step in powering our planet’s complex ecosystems. Underground, the sun’s energy is preserved as coal, oil, and natural gas, and many organisms rely on such fossilized energy to survive.

    However, some places on Earth have not felt the sun’s influence for millions, or even billions, of years. Any life surviving in these deep ecosystems, therefore, requires alternative sources of energy. In water samples collected from deep below Scandinavia and South Africa, researchers found that microbes in these ecosystems survive in fracture waters isolated for millions of years by coupling molecular hydrogen oxidation to sulfate reduction [1,2]. The hydrogen is produced by geochemical reactions such as serpentinization and radiolysis [3], but the source and sustainability of sulfate are still unknown.

    In a new paper published recently in Nature Communications, DCO’s Long Li (University of Alberta, Canada), Barbara Sherwood Lollar (University of Toronto, Canada), and colleagues examined samples of billion-year-old fracture fluids deep in the Canadian Shield to trace the source and production mechanism for the dissolved sulfate. This allowed them to assess the sustainability of sulfate to support a deep ecosystem [4].

    Funded by Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council as well as the Deep Carbon Observatory, the samples used in this study came from the Kidd Creek copper-zinc-silver mine in Ontario, Canada, which is currently the deepest base metal mine in North America. The water trapped in fractures ~2.4km below the surface has been there for more than a billion years and contains molecular hydrogen and methane [5]. Thus, some of the key molecules needed to power life in the deep are present in these ancient fluids.

    Li et al set out to address the other half of the question; do these fluids also contain sulfate? If they do, where does the sulfate come from, and how sustainable is it?

    The authors did find sulfate in the fluids from Kidd Creek mine. They analyzed the isotopic composition of the sulfur, which showed that the dissolved sulfate was characterized by a sulfur isotope mass-independent fractionation. This fractionation has only been observed in minerals formed before 2.4 billion years ago. By comparing multiple isotope compositions of the dissolved sulfate and the sulfide minerals in the 2.7 billion-year-old ore rocks, they demonstrate that this dissolved sulfate originated from sulfide minerals in the ore rocks. The sulfur in sulfide was transformed into sulfate as a result of reactions with radiolysis products. This suggests that geochemical fluid-rock interactions can provide, steadily over geological time scales, all the components necessary to power a deep biosphere.

    Through modeling the concentrations of sulfate and hydrogen in the fluids, they suggest that these fracture fluids could support 100-3,000 cells per liter, similar to the biomass in fracture fluids from South African gold mines.

    This has important implications for the extent of the current deep biosphere on Eatth, and the potential for life on other planets. For example, rocks of similar age and mineralogy to those of the Canadian Shield are also found on Mars. While potentially inhospitable to life today on the surface, if these rocks contain liquid groundwater at certain depth, they could also have enough energy to power life.

    Image: Sampling ancient water in deep mines. Credit: Gaetan Borgonie and Barbara Sherwood Lollar


    1. Lin LH, Wang PL, Rumble D, Lippmann-Pipke J, Boice E, Pratt LM, Sherwood Lollar B, Brodie EL, Hazen TC, Andersen GL, DeSantis TZ, Moser DP, Kershaw D, Onstott T (2006) Long-term sustainability of a high-energy, low-diversity crustal biome. Science 314:479-82

    2. Pedersen K (2012) Influence of H2 and O2 on sulphate-reducing activity of a subterranean community and the coupled response in redox potential. FEMS Microbial Ecology 82:653-665

    3. Sherwood Lollar B, Onstott TC, Lacrampe-Couloume G, Ballentine CJ (2014) The contribution of the Precambrian continental lithosphere to global H2 production. Nature 516:379-382

    4. Li L, Wing BA, Bui TH, McDermott JM, Slater GF, Wei S, Lacrampe-Couloume G, Sherwood Lollar B (2016) Fractionation in subsurface fracture waters indicates a long-standing sulfur cycle in Precambrian rocks. Nature Communications doi: 10.1038/ncomms13252

    5. Holland G, Sherwood Lollar B, Li L, Lacrampe-Couloume G, Slater GF, Ballentine CJ (2013) Deep fracture fluids isolated in the crust since the Precambrian era. Nature 497:357-360

  • Update 2016: Deep Hydrosphere and H2- The Canadian Shield - submitted on ,

    Update Details:

    The most recent work in this site provided a first examination of global H2 production via water-rock reaction (serpentinization and radiolysis) from the > 70% of the continental lithosphere that is Precambrian in age. Key to the discovery is a map of global occurrences of H2 and CH4-rich deep saline groundwaters. 4 field trips were carried out to continue the investigation of deep carbon sources in ancient groundwaters on the Canadian Shield. Work at two mines in Sudbury and two trips to Kidd Creek Mine in Timmins Ontario included accessing and sampling the deepest mining level in North America accessible to humans (9800 ft or almost 3 km).
    The group led by Barbara Sherwood-Lollar continued to be very productive, with three new papers in 2015-2016, all in highly ranked international journals. 
    Since the inception of the Sloan grant, this group has raised $1.1M in related grant funding and in-kind resources, about 22 times the amount of the initial funding through this grant. Several postdocs and graduate students have been involved in the related research.
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