On July 16, 1945, the US conducted the world’s first nuclear bomb test, an event codenamed Trinity. The test took place a couple of hundred miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of the iconic Los Alamos National Laboratory. That same lab has published a new study on a type of extreme rare crystal called a quasicrystal — one that was, in this case, formed by the extreme environment caused by the nuclear explosion.
Quasicrystals are named such because, unlike commonly found crystals that feature a repeating pattern of atoms, these ‘exotic’ crystals do not follow the periodic order. Rather, the quasicrystal created by the nuclear blast features five-fold rotational symmetry, which isn’t something a natural crystal could form.
Because of the extreme environments that produce these quasicrystals, they’re very rare to find on Earth — and the newly discovered one from the Trinity site, which was found in the glass-like trinitite caused by the explosion, is the oldest known human-made sample. At this point in time, it is unknown why quasicrystals form the way they do, but the crystal’s discovery will help uncover this mystery.
According to Los Alamos National Laboratory, this blast-created quasicrystal was formed from a mixture of sand, the test tower where the explosion took place, and copper transmission lines that were nearby. The resulting object lacks the beauty of a typical natural crystal, instead resembling something like a diseased piece of meat.
Quasicrystals like this may help shed light on nuclear testing programs still taking place in some countries, according to the national lab. Unlike radioactive debris and gases, which experience decay, these crystals are permanent and may be able to provide clues about the testing that takes place.
Image by Luca Bindi and Paul J. Steinhardt via Nature