EGU21-1469, updated on 03 Mar 2021
EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

How much energy for life (H2) is generated by serpentinization at passive continental margins?

Elmar Albers1, Wolfgang Bach1,2, Marta Pérez-Gussinyé1,2, Catherine McCammon3, and Thomas Frederichs2
Elmar Albers et al.
  • 1MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany (
  • 2Faculty of Geosciences, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany
  • 3Bayerisches Geoinstitut, University of Bayreuth, Bayreuth, Germany

Molecular hydrogen (H2) released during serpentinization of oceanic mantle is one of the main fuels for chemosynthetic-based deep life. Hydrogen is produced during the oxidation of ferrous to ferric iron, and the amount of H2 generated strongly depends on rock type, fluid composition, alteration temperature, and water-to-rock ratio.

Progress has been made in understanding serpentinization and related H2 production at slow-spreading mid-ocean ridges (MORs). Less attention has been paid to the hydration of mantle rocks at passive continental margins where different rock types are involved (lherzolite instead of harzburgite/dunite at MORs) and the alteration temperatures tend to be lower (<200°C vs. >200°C). To close this knowledge gap we investigated serpentinization and H2 production using drill core samples from the West Iberia margin (Ocean Drilling Program Leg 103, Hole 637A).

Lherzolitic compositions indicate that the exhumed peridotites represent sub-continental lithospheric mantle. The rocks are strongly serpentinized and mainly consist of serpentine with little magnetite and are generally brucite-free. Serpentine can be uncommonly Fe-rich, with XMg = Mg/(Mg+Fe) < 0.8, and shows distinct compositional trends towards a cronstedtite endmember. Bulk rock and silicate fraction Fe(III)/∑Fe ratios range from 0.6–0.92 and 0.58–0.8, respectively. Our data show that more than 2/3 of the ferric Fe is accounted for by Fe(III)-serpentine. Mass balance and thermodynamic calculations suggest that the initial serpentinization of the samples at temperatures of <200°C likely produced about 100–250 mmol H2 per kg rock, which is 2–3 times more than previously estimated.

These results lead us to suggest that the generation potential of H2 evolves from continental break-up to ultraslow and eventually slow MOR spreading. The observed metamorphic phase assemblages systematically vary between these different settings, which has consequences for H2 yields during serpentinization. At passive margins and ultraslow-spreading MORs, the main phase hosting Fe(III) appears to be serpentine, and H2 yields of 100–250 mmol and 50–150 mmol H2 per kg rock, respectively, may be expected at temperatures of <200°C. At slow-spreading MORs, in contrast, serpentinization of harzburgite may produce 200–350 mmol H2 per kg most of which is related to the formation of magnetite at >200°C. Within the same (low) temperature range, larger volumes of serpentinite should form at passive margins than at slow-spreading MORs, owing to lower geothermal gradients. Relative to both slow- and ultraslow-spreading MORs, serpentinization at passive margins likely produces more H2 and under conditions closer to/within the habitable zone. These sites may hence be suitable environments for hydrogenotrophic microbial life.

How to cite: Albers, E., Bach, W., Pérez-Gussinyé, M., McCammon, C., and Frederichs, T.: How much energy for life (H2) is generated by serpentinization at passive continental margins?, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-1469,, 2021.

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