HomeWorldA lightning strike creates phosphorous material for the first time on Earth

A lightning strike creates phosphorous material for the first time on Earth

After lightning struck a tree in the New Port Richey neighborhood, a University of South Florida (USF) professor discovered that the strike led to the formation of a new phosphorous material. It was found in rock – the first time in solid form on Earth and may represent a member of a new mineral group.

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

New material one that is transitional between space minerals and found minerals on the ground. “When lightning strikes a tree, the ground usually explodes and the surrounding grass dies, creating a scar and sending an electrical discharge through the surrounding rock, soil and sand, creating fulgurites, also known as ‘fossilized lightning,'” Pasek said.

When homeowners in New Port Richey discovered a “lightning scar,” they found fulgurite and decided to sell it, assuming it had value. Pasek bought it and later began a collaboration 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 carry the element phosphorus, particularly those formed by lightning, to better understand high-energy phenomena.

“It’s important to understand how much energy lightning has, because then we know how much damage an average lightning strike can cause and how dangerous it is,” said Pasek. “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.”

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Lightning strike creates phosphorous

In humid environments, such as Florida, iron often accumulates and encrustes tree roots, according to Pasek. In this case, lightning not only burned the iron on the tree’s roots, but also burned the naturally occurring carbon in the tree. These two elements led to a chemical reaction that created fulgurite, which looked like a metallic “sphere”.

Inside the fulgurite, a colored, crystal-like substance appeared, revealing a material that had not been discovered before.

Co-researcher Tian Feng, a graduate of USF’s geology program, tried to remake the material in the lab. The experiment was unsuccessful and suggests that the material probably forms quickly under the exact conditions and, if heated for too long, turns into the mineral found in meteorites.

“Previous researchers suggest that flash phosphate reduction was a widespread phenomenon on the early Earth,” Feng said. “However, there is a problem on Earth with environmental supplies of phosphites that are difficult to restore.”

Feng says this research may reveal that other forms of reduced minerals are plausible, and many may have been important for the development of life on Earth.

According to Pask, it is unlikely that this material could be mined for uses similar to other phosphates, such as fertilizer, due to the rarity of it occurring naturally. However, Pasek and Bindi plan to investigate the material further to see if it could be officially declared a mineral and to bring more awareness to the scientific community.

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