We like to think of things in the universe as either tidy or messy, but sometimes they are neither. Some of these "neither" things are quasicrystals, and scientists have just announced that they've found the third ever natural one.
The latest discovery, which is discussed in Scientific Reports, brings the number to three, and they all come from the same object – the Khatyrka meteorite, which was found in Siberia. These objects are extremely difficult to find since they are tiny – the new one is less than a half a millimeter across.
“It’s hard to look systematically for these things, because we’re talking about grains which are typically tens, or maybe a few hundred microns, in size, and you have to look through a gigantic meteorite at each little grain that size,” Paul Steinhardt, team leader from Princeton University, told New Scientist. “Unless you were completely crazy like we were, you wouldn’t be doing that.”
Steinhardt himself predicted the existence of quasicrystals in the 1980s, as a structured configuration between chaotic amorphous solids and a regularly repeating pattern found in crystals. Quasicrystals have a regular structure but they don’t have a repeating pattern.
Researchers have been creating quasicrystals in the lab since 1982 and more than 100 different types have been synthesized, but natural ones have been elusive.
The team believes that these quasicrystals were formed in some powerful impacts between asteroids at some point in the early years of the Solar System, and by understanding how they formed we might learn some new details about that mysterious epoch.
The new quasicrystal is made of aluminum, copper, and iron, not a rare composition for something coming from a meteorite, but the recipe is unusual enough for it to be the first quasicrystal to not have been made first in the lab.
Clearly, Mother Nature knows a lot more ways to make quasicrystals than we do and we could start copying her. “Once you know the answer, it’s not that hard to reproduce,” explained Steinhardt.
Quasicrystals are geological and chemical oddities, but we are yet to find a common application for them in industry. However, the discovery of this new one might lead to a wider hunt for quasicrystals and we might even stumble upon something that has some cool uses.
[H/T: New Scientist]