Periodic quantum mechanical simulations shed light on the reactive adsorption of water on low stable surfaces of Schreibersite (Fe2NiP), which give rise to the transformation of surface phosphide in phosphite and phosphate forms.

Phosphorus (P) is a fundamental element for whatever form of life, in the same way as the other biogenic macroelements (SONCH). The prebiotic origin of P is still a matter of debate, as the phosphates present on earth are trapped in almost insoluble solid matrixes (apatites) and, therefore, hardly available for inclusion in living systems in the prebiotic era. The most accepted theories regard a possible exogenous origin during the Archean Era, through the meteoritic bombardment, when tons of reactive P in the form of phosphide ((Fe,Ni)3P, schreibersite mineral) reached the primordial earth, reacting with water and providing oxygenated phosphorus compounds (including phosphates). In the last 20 years, laboratory experiments demonstrated that the corrosion process of schreibersite by water indeed leads to reactive phosphates that, in turn, react with other biological building blocks (nucleosides and simple sugars) to form more complex molecules (nucleotides and complex sugars). In the present paper, we study the water corrosion of different crystalline surfaces of schreibersite by means of periodic DFT (density functional theory) simulations. Our results show that water adsorbs molecularly on the most stable (110) surface but dissociates on the less stable (001) one, giving rise to further reactivity. Indeed, subsequent water adsorptions, up to the water monolayer coverage, show that, on the (001) surface, iron and nickel atoms are the first species undergoing the corrosion process and, in a second stage, the phosphorus atoms also get involved. When adsorbing up to three and four water molecules per unit cell, the most stable structures found are the phosphite and phosphate forms of phosphorus, respectively. Simulation of the vibrational spectra of the considered reaction products revealed that the experimental band at 2423 cm–1 attributed to the P–H stretching frequency is indeed predicted for a phosphite moiety attached to the schreibersite (001) surface upon chemisorption of up to three water molecules.

This work has been published in ACS Earth and Space Chemistry.

Link to the article as open access in ACS Earth Space Chem.: