The “Origins simulator” – A preliminary description

Research institute: Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University
Research group leaders: Mariëtte Wolthers, Inge Loes ten Kate, Helen King, Oliver Plümper, Paul Mason

Aim

Life as we know it needs gradients in electron/redox potential and protons/pH/ acidityalkalinity. We also know self-assembly and chirality are signatures for life. Where on Early Earth would all of these key ingredients for the Origin of Life have co-existed? The most likely setting is in hydrothermal vent systems, where warm alkaline, strongly reducing fluids that originate from subsurface fluid-rock interaction seeped into the acidic, iron(II)-rich, Hadean Ocean.

In the Origins Simulator, various Early Earth hydrothermal vent systems will be reproduced experimentally and the evolving structures and mineralogy will be determined. The outcomes of these simulation systems will provide information on catalytic and self-assebly potential that are crucial for the formation of the building blocks of Life. A (range of) UV-light source(s) and cosmochemical/abiotic compounds will be tested to study the interaction between mineralogy, fluid chemistry, and the influence of radiation during the pre-biotic formation of life-essential compounds. Analysing the gas phases formed in the Origins Simulator will provide the analytical finger-print(s) that will guide efforts in search for emerging life on exoplanets.

Experimental set-up

The Origins Simulator will need to:

  • be airtight and portable, next to a fixed set-up in a dedicated glove-box for subsampling
  • be a multi-channel reactor for simultaneous inflow of hydrothermal vent fluids and replicated Hadean Ocean water
  • have (potentially) an internal structure to support formation of “vent chimneys” (or a gel)
  • function at temperatures up to 120°C
  • have Raman-, X-ray and UV-transparent windows (sapphire, kapton and fused silica)

Costs for building this set-up is expected to be approximately 30k€, including multi-channel high-precision pumps, gas-tight solution reservoir bags, tubing and flow-through cells. Another 10k€ would be needed for a glove-box.

Analytical technique
  • In situ Raman analysis to determine which life-essential compounds are being formed
  • (In situ) synchrotron X-ray spectroscopy/microscopy to determine redox-states and local structures formed as well as the three-dimensional evolution of the vent system
  • Ex situ ion mass spectrometry (e.g., TOF-SIMS, nanoSIMS) to determine which life-essential compounds are being formed
  • 3D X-ray microscopy, high-resolution electron microscopy and micro-chemical mapping to identify the microstructural (pore network) and mineralogical evolution of experimentally produced hydrothermal vents.
  • Isotope analysis to develop tracers for early earth processes.
  • Quantum Mechanics calculations input will help to unravel the mechanisms at play at the interface between minerals and fluids.