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“So in one mineral species,” he says, “you have the deepest, the oldest, and the most resistant to secondary effects mineral that you can get, so it makes them very, very unique specimens.” Shirey tells us that the osmium-rhenium radioactive decay system allows researchers to date individual inclusions.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.It involves ingenious solutions to fashion the tiny diamonds into plates for study, cleave out the sulfides, separate the isotopes of rhenium and osmium by chemistry, and count the various isotopes with sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for the final age determination.“We have to get the inclusion out without breaking it,” says Shirey.“We need to recover the whole inclusion, and we also need to characterize the diamond as fully as possible.Research using the rhenium-osmium decay system proves that some diamonds are of remarkable antiquity, says Shirey.
The isotope of rhenium he uses, years, or 41 billion years.This sharp-edged octahedral diamond crystal nestles in kimberlite, the rock that brought it to the earth’s surface. Not merely for their intrinsic beauty, but for the fundamental information locked within them.Such crystals may preserve minerals from deep in the mantle and provide a record of temperature and pressure conditions there. Information that illuminates the earth’s early history and the planet’s structure at depths hundreds of kilometers beneath our feet.Unlike any other mineral, diamonds reach the surface from great depths—up to 700 kilometers (435 miles) beneath the earth’s surface—and may retain unaltered inclusions of mantle minerals within them.A diamond crystal is a “really good container” for these exotic minerals, he says, and preserves them in “pristine” form on the way to the earth’s surface.
Duncan Pay © GIA, courtesy Carnegie Institution of Washington “Let me try to place into a broader context what the good of this diamond work is,” Shirey begins.