“A diamond in a kimberlite occurs at the part-per-billion level,” says Shirey, “so the average person walking around on a kimberlite is not going to find a diamond sitting there—that’s an extremely rare occurrence.” Once researchers have traveled to suitable mining or exploration operations, where large amounts of diamond-bearing ore are produced, they have to pick through the production.
Even at a mine as large as South Africa’s Venetia, only 1 in 50,000 diamonds produced might harbor the right kind of inclusion.
Recent discoveries show that diamonds might form beneath subduction zones at great depths, and that very rarely plumes in the earth’s mantle move them up to where kimberlites can bring them to the earth’s surface.
These “superdeep” diamonds provide Shirey and other scientists a tantalizing window into the workings of the deeper mantle.
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The isotope of rhenium he uses, years, or 41 billion years.
Research using the rhenium-osmium decay system proves that some diamonds are of remarkable antiquity, says Shirey.
This is the principle behind long-established techniques such as radiocarbon dating, which has been widely used in archaeology.
Previous dating techniques required researchers to collect inclusions of other minerals—including garnets and zircon—from many different diamonds to obtain an age.
If there was more than one generation of diamonds in the sample, you’d end up with an average age rather than the specific age. Shirey uses to select natural diamonds for research and extract the sulfide inclusions from them to obtain accurate ages—often in the range of billions of years.
Diamonds are vastly older than any archeological relic, so carbon dating—which can only date items back to around 60,000 years ago—isn’t possible.
The isotopes Shirey seeks provide a much longer reach back into the earth’s history.