Lithium and boron isotopes in illite-smectite: The importance of crystal size

Lynda Williams, Richard Hervig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

143 Scopus citations


Clay minerals record chemical data about the past, acting like natural computer memory chips. To retrieve the data we must understand how they are stored. To achieve this we have examined the isotopic information revealed by two trace elements, lithium and boron, that are incorporated into the common clay minerals illite-smectite (I-S) during diagenesis. We used hydrothermal experiments at 300°C, 100 MPa, to speed up the reaction of smectite to illite that normally occurs during slow (10-100 Ma) sediment burial. During illitization, Li substitutes into the octahedral sites and B enters the tetrahedral sites of the silicate framework. Both Li and B are also adsorbed in the interlayer of smectite, but Li is preferred over B in the exchange sites. To determine the equilibrium isotope fractionation of the two trace elements it is important to remove these adsorbed interlayer species. By measuring the isotopic composition of Li and B in the silicate framework during reaction, we can address the relative timing of element exchange in the different crystallographic sites. Furthermore, because illitization of smectite is a crystal growth process (not an isomorphous replacement) we have examined the effect of crystal size on the isotope fractionation. The results show that Li and B approach an isotopic steady state when R1 ordering occurs, long before oxygen isotopes equilibrate with the fluid. The isotopic fractionation (αmineral-water) for Li (0.989) is similar to that for B (0.984) at 300°C. However, when separated into <0.2, 0.2-2.0, and >2.0 μm fractions, there are significant differences in measured isotope ratios by as much as 9‰. Crystal growth mechanisms and surface energy effects of nanoscale crystals may explain the observed isotopic differences. The fact that different crystals equilibrate at different rates (based on size) may be applied to natural samples to reveal the changing paleofluid history, provided we understand the conditions of equilibrium. This has very important implications for the interpretation of diagenetic environments, fluid flow, and surficial geochemical cycling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5705-5716
Number of pages12
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 15 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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