Strange new material discovered in “fossilized lightning”

A sample of the fulgurite (fossilized lightning) in which scientists have now discovered a new type of phosphorus material.  Matthew Pasek/University of South Florida

During a thunderstorm in the Summer of 2012, lightning struck a tree in New Port Richey, Florida, which flash-melted soil and sand around the roots to form a structure called a fulgurite, or “fossilized lightning.” The owners of the property found and sold the fulgurite to University of South Florida (USF) geoscientist, Matthew Pasek.

Fulgurites can be a goldmine for intriguing minerals, thanks to the strange chemical reactions that occur as a result of the extreme energy of a lightning strike. And when the USF team cracked this one open, they discovered a strange new form of calcium phosphite.

“We have never seen this material occur naturally on Earth – minerals similar to it can be found in meteorites and space, but we’ve never seen this exact material anywhere,” said Pasek.

By examining the fulgurite in detail, the team pieced together how this material likely formed. Iron is known to accumulate around tree roots in wet areas like Florida, and the lightning strike caused that iron to combust, and fuse with silicon in the sand around the tree root. At the same time, carbon in the tree itself combusted too, and together these elements underwent a chemical reaction that formed the fulgurite and the new phosphite material within.

When the team tried to recreate the new material in the lab, they couldn’t get the recipe right. That suggests that the material requires very specific conditions to form – if it’s heated for too long, for example, it becomes the similar mineral that’s found in meteorites.

The team plans to continue investigating the material to figure out if it could qualify for official declaration as a new mineral.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.

Source: University of South Florida

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