Quasicrystal from the first nuclear explosion is promising new material
The result is very exciting because it adds significant new support to the idea that high pressure shocks whether occurring in space in the early solar system, in a lab by firing projectiles at a target, or in an atomic blast can lead to new forms of matter that were not known before in this case, new forms of quasicrystals.Luca Bindi
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, with international collaboration, have identified a new form of quasicrystal produced by the explosion of the first atomic bomb, detonated by the US Army in the New Mexico desert in 1945. The previously unknown icosahedral quasicrystal, which was inside samples of red trinitite collected from the debris of the bomb, has potential for a range of uses – such as heat insulation, converting heat into electricity, bone repair and in prosthetics.
Trinitite, known as atomic rock and named after the military code for the first nuclear test blast, is a combination of glass fused from natural sand and anthropogenic copper from transmission lines used during the test and produced under conditions of extreme heat and pressure. Naturally occurring quasicrystals have already been found in meteorites and in the impact of meteorite strikes, but in red trinitite a composition was found that had not been predicted to form quasicrystals.
As reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Bindi et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (2021) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2101350118], the quasicrystal has an icosahedron shape – a solid 3D structure with 20 faces. It is composed of silicon, copper, calcium and iron, all of which can be traced back to source materials close to the bomb site that were pulled into the huge force of the explosion, along with the desert sand.
With concern over the proliferation of atomic weapons in the hands of rogue nations and terrorists, an understanding of the relationship between glass chemistry and radioactive elements in the materials from bomb blasts could help characterize the device used and identify its origins. Also, the signatures of radioactive debris and gases from explosions decay over time, while quasicrystals formed in a nuclear blast can potentially offer new types of information without that problem.
It is increasingly shown that high-pressure shocks can produce a combination of atoms not seen in normal laboratory conditions. As researcher Luca Bindi told Materials Today, “The result is very exciting because it adds significant new support to the idea that high pressure shocks – whether occurring in space in the early solar system, in a lab by firing projectiles at a target, or in an atomic blast – can lead to new forms of matter that were not known before – in this case, new forms of quasicrystals.”
The team are now looking to gain a better understanding why this type of material is produced under such extreme conditions – information that could be used to discover new forms of quasicrystals and even new forms of matter, as perhaps quasicrystalline materials could be more ubiquitous than previously thought.