Decoupling photochemical Fe(II) oxidation from shallow-water BIF deposition

Kurt O. Konhauser, Larry Amskold, Stefan V. Lalonde, Nicole R. Posth, Andreas Kappler, Ariel Anbar

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210 Scopus citations


Oxidized Fe minerals in Archean-Paleoproterozoic banded iron formations (BIFs) are commonly taken to indicate the presence of biogenic O2 or photosynthetic Fe(II)-oxidizing bacteria in the oceans' photic zone. However, at least one viable abiogenic oxidation mechanism has been proposed. Prior to the rise of atmospheric oxygen and the development of a protective ozone layer, the Earth's surface was subjected to high levels of ultraviolet radiation. Bulk ocean waters that were anoxic at this time could have supported high concentrations of dissolved Fe(II). Under such conditions, dissolved ferrous iron species, such as Fe2+ and Fe(OH)+, would have absorbed radiation in the 200-400 nm range, leading to the formation of dissolved ferric iron [Fe(III)], which in turn, would have hydrolyzed to form ferric hydroxide [Fe(OH)3] at circumneutral pH [Cairns-Smith, A.G., 1978, Precambrian solution photochemistry, inverse segregation, and banded iron formations. Nature 76, 807-808; Braterman, P.S., Cairns-Smith, A.G., and Sloper, R.W., 1983, Photo-oxidation of hydrated Fe2-Significance for banded iron formations. Nature 303, 163-164]. This process has been invoked to account for BIF deposition without need for biology [François, L.M., 1986, Extensive deposition of banded iron formations was possible without photosynthesis. Nature 320, 352-354]. Here, we evaluate the potential importance of photochemical oxidation using a combination of experiments and thermodynamic models. The experiments simulate the chemistry of ambient Precambrian seawater mixing with Fe(II)-rich hydrothermal fluids with, and without, UV irradiation. We find that if Fe(II) was effused from relatively shallow seamount-type vent systems directly into an anoxic photic zone, the photochemical contribution to solid-phase precipitation would have been negligible. Instead, most of the Fe(II) would have precipitated rapidly as an amorphous precursor phase to the ferrous silicate mineral greenalite ((Fe)3Si2O5(OH)4), and/or the ferrous carbonate, siderite (FeCO3), depending on different simulated atmospheric pCO2 levels. Conversely, in experiments where Fe(II) was exposed either to phototrophic Fe(II)-oxidizing bacteria or to O2, ferric hydroxide formed rapidly, and the precipitation of ferrous iron phases was not observed. If, as suggested on mass balance grounds, BIF deposition requires that Fe be sourced from shallow seamount-type systems, then we are driven to conclude that oxide-facies BIF are the product of a rapid, non-photochemical oxidative process, the most likely candidates being direct or indirect biological oxidation, and that a significant fraction of BIF could have initially been deposited as ferrous minerals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-100
Number of pages14
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jun 15 2007


  • Precambrian
  • anoxygenic photosynthesis
  • banded iron formations
  • mineral precipitation
  • photochemical oxidation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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