Quantum Diamonds and Plate Tectonics

Fascinating news about plate tectonics broke this week, but until today I haven’t been able to grasp it well enough for a post.

Basically, boffins have developed a promising new way to figure out how long tectonic plates — those huge chunks of planetary crust that carry parts of continents like North America around and get up to shenigans like building the Himalaya Mountains or forming the Marianas deep-sea trench — have been operating.

Here’s roughly the last half-billion years’ worth of plate tectonics in about six and a half minutes.

It’s not simply an academic matter. Better understanding of plates and the processes that affect them eventually leads to improved earthquake and volcanic hazard forecasting and management.

Best of all would be to know how Earth went from a molten Hades to the cool, crusty planet we know and love today.

A visit by the Blues Brothers? (Image: Serge Aubert/Shutterstock)

However, evidence of those early days either melted, eroded away, or was buried and then deformed by the intense pressures of billions of years’ worth on geologic deposits.

So the news this week was huge.

Even better, they did their work using the awesomely named quantum diamond microscope — studying chunks of the planet’s crust with a microscope is amazing enough, but using quantum diamonds to do it?


But what are quantum diamonds? And what do they see in that microscope that can reveal things sbout a tectonic plate?

These are simple questions but answers to them in plain English are lacking. The technique, while widely accepted, is too new for there to be much layperson-friendly background information about it yet.

Fortunately, some very good science writers are working on it, and this morning I read an excellent, easy-to-follow article on the new discovery.

And I also came across this very understandable video about quantum diamonds in research, though it comes from a bioscience approach.

Apparently quantum diamonds have applications in many fields!

Edited April 25, 2020.

Featured image: NOAA/NASA GOES Project, CC BY 2.0

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