Subterranean production of neutrons, 39Ar and 21Ne: Rates and uncertainties

Ondřej Šrámek, Lauren Stevens, William F. McDonough, Sujoy Mukhopadhyay, R. J. Peterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Accurate understanding of the subsurface production rate of the radionuclide 39Ar is necessary for argon dating techniques and noble gas geochemistry of the shallow and the deep Earth, and is also of interest to the WIMP dark matter experimental particle physics community. Our new calculations of subsurface production of neutrons, 21Ne, and 39Ar take advantage of the state-of-the-art reliable tools of nuclear physics to obtain reaction cross sections and spectra (TALYS) and to evaluate neutron propagation in rock (MCNP6). We discuss our method and results in relation to previous studies and show the relative importance of various neutron, 21Ne, and 39Ar nucleogenic production channels. Uncertainty in nuclear reaction cross sections, which is the major contributor to overall calculation uncertainty, is estimated from variability in existing experimental and library data. Depending on selected rock composition, on the order of 107–1010 α particles are produced in one kilogram of rock per year (order of 1–103 kg−1 s−1); the number of produced neutrons is lower by ∼6 orders of magnitude, 21Ne production rate drops by an additional factor of 15–20, and another one order of magnitude or more is dropped in production of 39Ar. Our calculation yields a nucleogenic 21Ne/4He production ratio of (4.6±0.6)×10-8 in Continental Crust and (4.2±0.5)×10-8 in Oceanic Crust and Depleted Mantle. Calculated 39Ar production rates span a great range from 29 ± 9 atoms kg-rock−1 yr−1 in the K–Th–U-enriched Upper Continental Crust to (2.6 ± 0.8) × 10-4 atoms kg-rock−1 yr−1 in Depleted Upper Mantle. Nucleogenic 39Ar production exceeds the cosmogenic production below ∼700 m depth and thus, affects radiometric ages of groundwater. The 39Ar chronometer, which fills in a gap between 3H and 14C, is particularly important given the need to tap deep reservoirs of ancient drinking water.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)370-387
Number of pages18
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Jan 1
Externally publishedYes


  • (α,n) neutrons
  • 21Ne production rate
  • Ar production rate
  • Fluid residence time
  • Noble gases

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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