Lightning strike creates a material seen for the first time on Earth

After lightning struck a tree in New Port Richey, Florida, a team of scientists from the University of South Florida (USF) discovered that this strike led to the formation of a new phosphorous material in a rock. This is the first time such a material has been found in solid form on Earth and could represent a member of a new mineral group.

“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 study lead author Matthew Pasek, a geoscientist at USF.

According to the researchers, high-energy events such as lightning can sometimes cause unique chemical reactions which, in this particular case, have led to the formation of a new material that seems to be transitional between space minerals and minerals found on Earth.

“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 ‘fossilized lightning,’” Pasek explained.

In wet environments such as Florida, iron frequently accumulates and encrusts tree roots, and lightning strikes can combust both this iron and the naturally occurring carbon in the tree. In New Port Richey, the combustion of these two elements created a fulgurite resembling a metal ‘glob’ and containing a colorful, crystal-like matter. The scientists failed in their attempts to recreate this material in the laboratory, suggesting that it likely forms quickly under precise conditions and, if heated too long, transforms into a mineral usually found in meteorites.

Previous studies have argued that lightning reduction of phosphate had been a widespread phenomenon on early Earth and could have played a significant role in the development of life on our planet. However, further research is needed to understand the frequency of such events and the role they played in Earth’s evolution.

The experts concluded that it is unlikely for this material to be mined for uses similar to those of other phosphates (such as fertilizer), considering the rarity of it occurring naturally. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications: Earth & Environment.

Post a Comment