Lightning strike produces never-before-seen mineral on Earth
A strange mineral, whose origin was considered exclusively extraterrestrial, was produced in solid form on Earth as a result of a lightning strike on a tree in Florida, United States.
‘We’ve never seen this material occur naturally on Earth. Similar minerals can be found in meteorites and in space, but we’ve never seen this exact material anywhere,’ said Matthew Pasek, a geoscientist at the University of South Florida and lead author of the study published in Communications Earth & Environment.
In a recent study published in Communications Earth & Environment, Pasek examined how high-energy events such as lightning can cause unique chemical reactions and, in this case, result in a new material, one that is a transition between space minerals and minerals found on Earth.
‘When lightning strikes a tree, the ground typically explodes and the surrounding grass dies, scarring and sending an electrical discharge through nearby rock, soil and sand, forming fulgurites, also known as ‘fossilized lightning”’ Pasek said in a statement.
When residents of the area discovered the ‘lightning scar’, they found a fulgurite and decided to sell it, assuming it had value. Pasek bought it and later began a collaboration with Luca Bindi, a professor of mineralogy and crystallography at the University of Florence in Italy.
How was this ‘alien’ mineral produced?
The researcher explains that ‘when lightning strikes a tree, the ground usually explodes and the surrounding grass dies, forming a scar and sending an electrical discharge through the nearby rock, soil and sand, forming fulgurites, also known as ‘fossilized rays’.
Residents of the area discovered the ‘lightning scar’ and a fulgurite. They sold it to Pasek, who along with Luca Bindi, a professor of mineralogy and crystallography at the University of Florence in Italy, was researching phosphorus-containing minerals, especially those formed by lightning.
In humid environments, such as in Florida, Pasek has explained that iron often builds up and becomes embedded in tree roots. In this case, the lightning not only burned iron from the roots of the tree, but also carbon found naturally in the tree. The two elements gave rise to a chemical reaction that created a fulgurite that looked like a ‘balloon’ of metal.
New Material Discovered in Fulgurite
Co-lead investigator Tian Feng, a graduate of USF’s geology program, attempted to remake the material in a laboratory. The experiment was unsuccessful and indicates that the material likely forms rapidly under the right conditions and, if heated too much, will turn into the mineral found in meteorites.
‘Previous researchers indicate that phosphate reduction by lightning has been a widespread phenomenon on the early Earth,’ according to Feng. ‘However, there is an environmental phosphite deposit problem on Earth that these solid phosphite materials are difficult to restore.’
Feng has said that this research may reveal that other forms of reduced minerals are plausible and many could have been important in the development of life on Earth.
According to Pasek, it is unlikely that this material could be mined for uses similar to other phosphates, such as fertilizers, given the rarity of its natural occurrence. However, Pasek and Bindi plan to further investigate the material to determine if it could be officially declared as a mineral and raise more awareness among the scientific community.
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