Quirks & Quarks

World's first nuclear detonation forged the first human-made quasicrystal

When scientists tested the first nuclear explosive in 1945 in New Mexico, the pressure and temperature of the blast created a material we're only starting to understand today.

Researchers found traces of this unique material in slag from ground zero of the Trinity nuclear test

Image of red trinitite sample that came from remnants of the world's first nuclear test in 1945, which contained the quasicrystal. (Luca Bindi / Paul J. Steinhardt)

Several decades ago theoretical physicist Paul Steinhardt speculated about the existence of a material that science at the time said was impossible. The material was a quasicrystal, a solid in which atoms could exist in stable patterns of peculiar irregular symmetry.

His theorizing was soon proved right, as another researcher, Dan Schectman, created a quasicrystal in his lab, a feat that won Shechtman the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011. Since their discovery, synthetic quasicrystals have demonstrated enormous potential for very hard materials and electronic and photonic devices.

But Steinhardt was determined to find quasicrystals not made in a lab. Years ago he and his colleagues found an example of this material in a fragment of a meteorite discovered in a museum in Florence, Italy, that originally came from Russia.

These images show different types of symmetries that can be found in quasicrystals: 5-fold (top left), 7-fold (top right), 11-fold (bottom left) and 17-fold (bottom right). (Paul Steinhardt)

Now in new work they've found a quasicrystal unlike anything ever seen before from ground zero of the Trinity atomic test. That blast in July of 1945 was the world's first nuclear explosion. 

Quasicrystals were long thought to be impossible because they violated the "rules" of what arrangements atoms can have in a solid. Scientists believed that crystals could only have two, three, four or sixfold symmetry, but nothing else.

Since the discovery of the first quasicrystals scientists now know it is possible to have different symmetries more than one building block and frequency within the pattern. 

The telltale fingerprint of a quasicrystal can only be seen by shining X-rays through it.

These are images of the X-ray diffraction pattern in the quasicrystal discovered in the red trinitite from remnants of the first nuclear bomb test showing fivefold (left) symmetry, threefold (middle) and twofold (right). (Paul Steinhardt / Luca Bindi / PNAS)

After analyzing the sample that came from the nuclear blast site, Steinhardt and his colleagues found the quasicrystal had fivefold, threefold and twofold symmetries. 

You can listen to the interview with Paul Steinhardt by clicking the link above.

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting and Jim Lebans

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