"Forbidden" Quasicrystals Were Created By World's First Atomic Bomb Blast

July 16, 1945: Photograph taken at 9 seconds after the initial Trinity detonation shows the Mushroom cloud in New Mexico. Image credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

In the early morning of July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb detonation ripped through the dusty deserts of New Mexico, shooting an 11,500-meter (~38,000-foot) mushroom cloud into the air. Amidst the untold destruction cause by the nuclear test, known as Trinity, the explosion also created something quite remarkable: “forbidden” quasicrystals that question what we know about physics.

In a new study, reported this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of scientists detail the discovery of this never-before-seen type of quasicrystal.

“Until today we knew that natural quasicrystals formed under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure: the only two that have been documented, icosahedrite and decagonite, had been found, thanks to my previous research, in fragments of a meteorite that fell into the Koryak mountains, far east of Russia, about 15,000 years ago,” Luca Bindi, lead study author and professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, said in a statement.

“The conditions under which the two quasicrystals had formed, probably in collisions between asteroids in space at the beginning of the solar system, are comparable to those produced in atomic explosions. This is why I decided to study the material formed in the Trinity test.”

trinitite.
Image of red trinitite sample which contained the quasicrystal. Image credit: Luca Bindi and Paul J. Steinhardt.

The Trinity bomb test saw an atomic bomb being detonated atop a 33-meter (100-foot) steel tower. Subjected to an ungodly amount of heat energy, the sand in the crater below was fused into a green (and occasionally red) glass-like material known as trinitite. Using a range of high-tech imaging techniques, the researchers looked at some of the samples of trinitite forged by the test. It revealed that the sample of trinitite contained strange metallic blobs that were made of an unknown composition of icosahedral quasicrystal, Si61Cu30Ca7Fe2.

Quasicrystals have previously been found in meteorites and synthesized in labs, but this is thought to be the first example of a human-made quasicrystal made by an atomic bomb explosion. The newly discovered quasicrystal has fivefold, threefold, and twofold symmetries, a pattern that violates the symmetry rules of normal crystals. 

A typical crystal refers to a material that has atoms that are symmetrically ordered in a periodic, repeating pattern. In quasicrystals, however, the atoms are still ordered but the pattern is not repeated. This results in a bizarre asymmetric and non-repeating atomic structure that’s not seen in typical crystals and is known as "forbidden symmetry". Daniel Shechtman, an Israeli material scientist, first discovered quasicrystals in the 1980s. The work initially garnered criticism and even outright mockery, but it eventually landed him with the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry. That’s one way to silence your haters.

Correction 24/05/2021: This article originally stated the bomb was dropped from the tower. It has since been amended to explain it was detonated at the top of the tower.

 


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