A lightning strike has produced a brand-new phosphorus mineral, similar to that found on meteorites and in space. The bolt created a chemical reaction in a rock, leading to what could be a member of a new mineral group, somewhere between space minerals and minerals found on earth, and researchers believe strikes like this one might have produced chemicals that kick-started life on Earth.
Similar materials have been found in meteorites and space but this is the first recorded instance of it being created on Earth. A lightning strike inled to a chemical reaction creating a new material that is transitional between space minerals and minerals found on Earth.
The find was made following the strike on a tree in New Port Richey, Florida, when a fulgurite, or fossilized lightning was sold by the landowners to a geoscientist who then had it analyzed.
Fulgurites are formed by the high-energy electrical discharge of lightning through rock, soil and sand.
“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. When lightning strikes a tree, the ground typically explodes out and the surrounding grass dies, forming a scar and sending electric discharge through nearby rock, soil and sand, forming fulgurites, also known as ‘fossilised lightning,” said Professor Matthew Pasek, from the University of South Florida.
University of South Florida geoscientist Matthew Pasek holds a fulgurite, a rock formed by an electric discharge that passes through nearby rock, soil and sand.
It’s important to understand how much energy lightning has because then we know how much damage a lightning strike can cause on average and how dangerous it is. Florida is the lightning capital of the world and lightning safety is important. If lightning is strong enough to melt rock, it can certainly melt people too added Pasek.
The study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment came about after Pasek teamed up with Luca Bindi, a professor of mineralogy and crystallography at the University of Florence in Italy.
Together, the team set out to investigate unusual minerals that bear the element phosphorus, especially those formed by lightning, to better understand high-energy phenomena.
Close-up of a fulgurite, a rock formed by an electric discharge that passes through nearby rock, soil and sand. In wet environments, such as in Florida, iron will often accumulate and encrust tree roots.
In this case, not only did the lightning strike combust the iron on the tree roots, but it combusted the naturally occurring carbon in the tree as well. The two elements led to a chemical reaction that created a fulgurite that looked like a metal ‘glob.’ Inside the fulgurite, a colorful, crystal-like matter revealed a material never before discovered.
Co-principal investigator Dr. Tian Feng, a graduate of USF’s geology program, attempted to remake the material in a lab but failed. A lightning strike in New Port Richey, Florida, led to a chemical reaction creating a new material, pictured here.
This indicates the material likely forms quickly under precise conditions, and if heated too long, will turn into the mineral found in meteorites.
“Previous researchers indicate that lightning reduction of phosphate to have been a widespread phenomenon on the early Earth. However, there is an environmental phosphite reservoir issue in Earth that these solid phosphite materials are hard to restore” said Dr. Feng.
Dr. Feng said this research may reveal other forms of reduced minerals are plausible and many could have been important in the development of life on Earth. Professors Pasek and Bindi plan to further investigate the material to determine if it could be officially declared a mineral and bring additional awareness to the scientific community.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Eunice Anyango Oyule and Judy J. Rotich