Molecular modelling of rare earth element complexation in subduction zone fluids

Jelle van Sijl, Neil L. Allan, Gareth R. Davies, Wim van Westrenen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Complexation of (trace) elements in fluids plays a critical role in determining element mobility in subduction zones, but to date, the atomic-scale processes controlling elemental solubilities are poorly understood. As a first step towards computer simulation of element complexation in subduction zone fluids, a thermodynamic cycle was developed to investigate the hydration environment and energetics of lanthanide complexes using density functional theory. The first solvation shell is explicitly defined and the remaining part of the aqueous fluid is modelled using a polarisable continuum model, which allows extrapolation to a broad pressure and temperature range.

We illustrate our method by comparing solvation of lanthanide series elements in H2O in the presence of fluoride or chloride for conditions relevant to subduction zones. The energetics of lanthanide- and lanthanide-fluoride/chloride hydration complexes were determined computationally. Calculated hydration free energies for trivalent lanthanides with explicit eight- and nine-fold coordinated first hydration shells show good agreement with literature data at room pressure and temperature. The hydration free energy is more negative for smaller complexes (heavy lanthanides) relative to larger complexes (light lanthanides), with the difference between La and Lu in water amounting to 361 kJ mol(-1). The hydration free energy of all lanthanide ions becomes less negative with increasing pressure (p) and temperature (T) up to 2.5 GPa and 1000 K (typical conditions in the upper part of subducting slabs). The free energy difference between light- and heavy-lanthanides remains essentially unchanged at elevated (p, T) conditions. There are minor geometrical differences in local hydration environment between light lanthanide-chloride (La-Nd) and heavy lanthanide-chloride (Pm-Lu) hydrated complexes, without a distinguishable energy difference. Complexation with fluoride is energetically more favourable than with chloride by 206 +/- 4 kJ mol(-1) across the entire lanthanide series. The association of fluoride-water and chloride-water fragments with lanthanide-water complexes is energetically more favourable for aqueous lanthanide complexes surrounded by fewer first hydration shell water molecules.

The methods developed in this study, in conjunction with simulation of the energetics of trace element incorporation into minerals, open the possibility to use molecular modelling to constrain elemental behaviour in subduction zones. (C) 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3934-3947
Number of pages14
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2009


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