An accidental electrical discharge might have formed the first natural quasicrystal on Earth

The finding could be historic as all natural quasicrystals found to date are extraterrestrials from meteorites.
Deena Theresa
Cross-section of the fulgurite, showing molten sand around the metal of a downed power line during a storm.
Cross-section of the fulgurite, showing molten sand around the metal of a downed power line during a storm.

Luca Bindi 

In 2021, researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), founded during World War II to design nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project, discovered a new quasicrystal created by the first-ever nuclear explosion in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. 

More than a year later, a team of researchers from Università di Firenze, the University of South Florida, California Institute of Technology, and Princeton University found an "incidence" of a quasicrystal formed during an accidental electrical discharge, as per a release.

The group described their study of the quasicrystal in a small cluster formed on a sand dune in SandHills National Park in the US state of Nebraska in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Quasicrystals found until now were extraterrestrials

Once confirmed, the finding could be historical as all-natural quasicrystals found to date were extraterrestrials found in meteorites. However, like the aforementioned incident, some cases of unnatural occurrence in regions where nuclear bomb tests were carried out have taken place too.

Unlike traditional crystals, with metals, well-ordered atomic lattices, and glasses, with their total disorder, quasicrystals have patterns that don't seem to fit perfectly and never repeat themselves.

Upon study, Italian geologist Luca Bindi and his colleagues found that this specific quasicrystal had a 12-fold, or dodecagonal symmetry, which was quite rare in quasicrystals. The curious researchers found that a power line had fallen on the dune, most likely due to a lightning strike. Their paper suggests that the electrical surge from the power line or the lightning could have produced the quasicrystal.

An accidental electrical discharge might have formed the first natural quasicrystal on Earth
Diffraction pattern of the quasicrystal, showing its 12-sided symmetry.

The quasicrystal has a 12-fold symmetry with silicon dioxide glass

"The discharge produced extreme temperatures (>1710 °C) that led to the formation of a fulgurite, a tube of molten sand, along with traces of melted conductive metal from the power line," the team described in the release. 

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The quasicrystal in question was found inside the tubular piece of fulgurite. It is formed by manganese, silicon, chromium, aluminum, and nickel. 

Researchers looked at the quasicrystal employing an electron microscope. It contained bits of silicon dioxide glass, indicating that temperatures inside the dune during the discharge would have reached at least 1,710 degrees Celsius. It was also found that the quasicrystal had been collected from an "area of transition" between melted aluminum alloy and silicate glass.

A significant discovery

The discovery is significant - it reveals that there could be other quasicrystals of a natural origin of Earth, formed due to lightning or high-voltage power lines.

"The discovery suggests mechanisms for the formation of quasicrystals in nature (on Earth and in space) and the laboratory," the team wrote.

 Abstract:

We report the discovery of a dodecagonal quasicrystal Mn72.3Si15.6Cr9.7Al1.8Ni0.6—composed of a periodic stacking of atomic planes with quasiperiodic translational order and 12-fold symmetry along the two directions perpendicular to the planes—accidentally formed by an electrical discharge event in an eolian dune in the Sand Hills near Hyannis, Nebraska, United States. The quasicrystal, coexisting with a cubic crystalline phase with composition Mn68.9Si19.9Ni7.6Cr2.2Al1.4, was found in a fulgurite consisting predominantly of fused and melted sand along with traces of melted conductor metal from a nearby downed power line. The fulgurite may have been created by a lightning strike that combined sand with material from downed power line or from electrical discharges from the downed power line alone. Extreme temperatures of at least 1,710 °C were reached, as indicated by the presence of SiO2 glass in the sample. The dodecagonal quasicrystal is an example of a quasicrystal of any kind formed by electrical discharge, suggesting other places to search for quasicrystals on Earth or in space and for synthesizing them in the laboratory.