A group of scientists based at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) are heading up a multi-faceted project to study the origin of Earth’s water and hydrogen.

Titled “Water from the Heavens: The Origins of Earth’s Hydrogen,” the project will be led by Peter Buseck of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences. Buseck is a Regents’ Professor and the Principal Investigator for the project.

Buseck and his team will seek to answer the fundamental question of where the water on Earth originally came from. The path to understanding this leads to experiments that measure how hydrogen behaved among the metallic elements in the core and mantle of the early Earth.

“The origin of Earth’s water and hydrogen is a long-debated, yet unsolved mystery,” says Buseck.

While current models dismiss the theory that a significant source of hydrogen is from the early Earth’s gas cloud, the team’s theory, referred to as the “ingassing hypothesis” would require that substantial amounts of hydrogen be removed from the mantle and stored in the core. This has not been an easy theory to test, however, because of the complexity of simulating the extreme pressure and temperature deep within Earth.

To overcome these challenges, Buseck and his team have developed breakthrough high-pressure techniques using transmission electron microscopes and diamond-anvil cells, both located on the ASU Tempe campus. If successful, the method would significantly advance high-pressure technology.

“Support for the hypothesis would be a cosmochemical game-changer, potentially shifting the framework of our understanding of the origin of water, noble gases, and other volatiles on Earth and rocky exoplanets,” says Buseck. “This could have significant consequences for our understanding of planetary habitability.”

The Experiment part of the team is led by Buseck and Jun Wu, Sang-Heon Shim, and Kurt Leinenweber, all of SESE. The Analysis team is led by SESE’s Stephen Romaniello and Ariel Anbar, along with Zachary Sharp from the University of New Mexico. The Theory team is led by SESE’s Steven Desch and SESE director Linda Elkins-Tanton.

ASU is one of only six universities this year to receive a Keck Foundation award in the Science and Engineering Research Grant category. The award amount is $1.5 million.

“True to the Sun Devil spirit, Professor Buseck’s team proposal was ambitious in scope, innovative in approach, and ripe with transformative potential. We are delighted to see the Keck Foundation’s decided endorsement of this attempt to tackle one of the most intriguing controversies in planetary genesis,” says Ferran Garcia-Pichel, Natural Science Dean of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.