On July 16, 1945, the U.S. Army blew up the world first nuclear test weapon over the New Mexico desert. At the moment, metal-coated plutonium a device called a “Gadget” exploded, creating a giant fireball that rose high into the sky, vaporizing everything it touched. Sand melted into radioactive glass, and a crater almost as wide as a football field damaged the planet. The test – coded Trinity – was successful.
But Trinity was not only destroyed; it also left behind something strange and new.
In a study published in the June 1 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have detected otherworldly crystals called “quasi-crystals” trapped in the bomb-blown rocks at the Trinity site. These strange gems, which lack the perfect symmetry of true crystals, are usually seen only in meteorites of the early solar system, and are supposed to be forged only in the extreme heat and pressure of the most powerful explosions in the universe.
These newly found crystals, embedded in the rubble of the site of the Trinity, give scientists proof that quasi-crystals can also result from the most explosive creations of humanity, according to the study’s authors. These crystals give nuclear researchers “a new tool in the gear” to analyze the power and impact of past nuclear explosions, and in the U.S. and abroad, study co-author Terry Wallace, retired director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said en video accompanying the research.
“Understanding another country’s nuclear weapons requires that we clearly understand their nuclear test programs,” Wallace said in a statement. “We usually analyze radioactive waste and gases to understand how the weapons were built or what materials they contained, but those signatures are decaying. Like a crystal formed at the site of a nuclear explosion … [will] to exist forever. “
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When the plutonium Gadget exploded on July 16, the resulting fireball was hotter than the Earth’s sun, Wallace said. The heat and force of this explosion were so strong that the metal test tower and surrounding sand melted together into a new kind of glass, later called trinitite.
Most trinitized samples are green, like a pale glass bottle. But rarer specimens are red, presumably because they contain larger amounts of copper and other metals from the test tower and recording equipment on site. In their new study, Wallace and his colleagues examined a red trinitite sample under an electron microscope, looking specifically at metal “blobs,” which might contain crystals.
In this sample, the team detected a five-sided quasi-crystal with an atomic structure never before seen on Earth. The crystal was made mainly of silicon of the desert sand, but also contained proportionately high amounts of copper, plus some iron and calcium. Wallace said “the crystal is“ grand in its complexity ”- and it’s still not clear to his team exactly how or why it was formed that way.
One thing is clear, however: This quasi-crystal has an “unmistakable” origin, based on its composition, radioactivity, and discovery, the researchers said. It is a unique crystal forged in the fires of the first nuclear explosion in the United States, and therefore it is the oldest man-made quasi-crystal on Earth.
Similar crystals could hide in the rubble of other nuclear test sites – and studying the unique structures of those crystals could reveal important information about the nature of the bombs that created them, Wallace said. Unlocking that knowledge will require much more study – and much more crystal sampling – but ultimately it would be worthwhile to better understand the cosmic-level explosions that humans have learned to unleash here on Earth.
Originally published in Life Science.