High-pressure elastic properties of major materials of Earth's mantle from first principles


  • Bijaya B. Karki,

  • Lars Stixrude,

  • Renata M. Wentzcovitch


The elasticity of materials is important for our understanding of processes ranging from brittle failure, to flexure, to the propagation of elastic waves. Seismologically revealed structure of the Earth's mantle, including the radial (one-dimensional) profile, lateral heterogeneity, and anisotropy are determined largely by the elasticity of the materials that make up this region. Despite its importance to geophysics, our knowledge of the elasticity of potentially relevant mineral phases at conditions typical of the Earth's mantle is still limited: Measuring the elastic constants at elevated pressure-temperature conditions in the laboratory remains a major challenge. Over the past several years, another approach has been developed based on first-principles quantum mechanical theory. First-principles calculations provide the ideal complement to the laboratory approach because they require no input from experiment; that is, there are no free parameters in the theory. Such calculations have true predictive power and can supply critical information including that which is difficult to measure experimentally. A review of high-pressure theoretical studies of major mantle phases shows a wide diversity of elastic behavior among important tetrahedrally and octahedrally coordinated Mg and Ca silicates and Mg, Ca, Al, and Si oxides. This is particularly apparent in the acoustic anisotropy, which is essential for understanding the relationship between seismically observed anisotropy and mantle flow. The acoustic anisotropy of the phases studied varies from zero to more than 50% and is found to depend on pressure strongly, and in some cases nonmonotonically. For example, the anisotropy in MgO decreases with pressure up to 15 GPa before increasing upon further compression, reaching 50% at a pressure of 130 GPa. Compression also has a strong effect on the elasticity through pressure-induced phase transitions in several systems. For example, the transition from stishovite to CaCl2 structure in silica is accompanied by a discontinuous change in the shear (S) wave velocity that is so large (60%) that it may be observable seismologically. Unifying patterns emerge as well: Eulerian finite strain theory is found to provide a good description of the pressure dependence of the elastic constants for most phases. This is in contrast to an evaluation of Birch’s law, which shows that this systematic accounts only roughly for the effect of pressure, composition, and structure on the longitudinal (P) wave velocity. The growing body of theoretical work now allows a detailed comparison with seismological observations. The athermal elastic wave velocities of most important mantle phases are found to be higher than the seismic wave velocities of the mantle by amounts that are consistent with the anticipated effects of temperature and iron content on the P and S wave velocities of the phases studied. An examination of future directions focuses on strategies for extending first-principles studies to more challenging but geophysically relevant situations such as solid solutions, high-temperature conditions, and mineral composites.