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A lightning strike has produced a new type of mineral for Earth

Inspenet, April 19, 2023

Locals in New Port Richey, Florida, found a fulgurite after lightning struck a tree that they have sold to a University of South Florida professor, who discovered that the impact appears to have led to the formation of a new type of phosphorus material on our planet.

“This material has never been seen to occur naturally on Earth, similar minerals can be found in meteorites and in space,” said Matthew Pasek, a geophysicist at the University of South Florida.

1680 mineral fulgurita rayo 1 Mathew Pasek
Fulgurite sample from New Port Richey, Florida, USA. © Photo : Matthew Pasek

The new colorful and crystalline element is a type of calcium phosphite, or specifically according to its chemical properties: CaHPO3. As can be seen in the image, the element that was found for the first time in its solid state on Earth has the appearance of a metamorphic rock.

Fulgurites consist mainly of iron silicides that are formed by the chemical reaction after a lightning strike on the surface, fusing the sand and carbon present in the root of a tree. The researcher also explained that in places with humid climates, such as the city of Florida, the iron often agglomerates and embeds itself in the roots of the trees.

1680 mineral fulgurita rayo 2 Universidad South Florida
Geoscientist Matthew Pasek posing with the new mineral. University of South Florida

“When a discharge hits a tree, the ground usually explodes and the surrounding grass dies, forming a scar. Consequentially, electricity travels through the nearby rock, soil and sand, forming ‘fossilized lightning’,” he said. Pasek.

This study, in addition to examining how high-energy events can cause unique chemical reactions that fall somewhere between minerals in space and those on Earth, could tell us a lot about the development of life on Earth.

1680 mineral fulgurita rayo 3 Luca Bindi
Luca Bindi et al, Communications Earth & Environment, Springer Nature, Mar 14, 2023

“Previous scientists state that the reduction of phosphate by lightning has been a widespread phenomenon on the early Earth […] however, there is a problem [estos] they’re hard to restore,” said Tian Feng, the study’s co-principal investigator from the University of South Florida, who tried unsuccessfully to remake the material in a lab.

1680 mineral fulgurita rayo 4 Luca Bindi
Luca Bindi et al, Communications Earth & Environment, Springer Nature, Mar 14, 2023

Such is its rarity that the researchers plan to continue studying the find further in order to determine if it can be officially declared as a mineral.

The research has been published in the journal Communications earth and environment.


Cover photo : ShutterStock

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