On the morning of 16 July 1945 at 5:29 am, a catastrophic slice of history unfolded in New Mexico, forever altering the course of warfare.
The tranquil dawn was shattered when the United States Army conducted the world’s first test of a nuclear bomb, known as the Trinity test, by detonating a plutonium implosion device called the Gadget.
The energy release, equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT, obliterated the 30-meter test tower and miles of copper wires, fusing them with the surrounding asphalt and desert sand into a new mineral known as trinitite.
Decades later, researchers unearthed an astonishing secret hidden within a piece of trinitite – the rare formation of a quasicrystal, a type of matter once believed to be impossible to create.
In 2021, geophysicist Terry Wallace of Los Alamos National Laboratory revealed, “Quasicrystals require a traumatic event with extreme shock, temperature, and pressure, such as a nuclear explosion, to form.”
Most crystals adhere to a lattice structure pattern in three-dimensional space, but quasicrystals defy this rule by having non-repeating atomic arrangements.
Initially thought to be impossible, quasicrystals were later discovered to exist in lab-created environments and within meteorites caused by high-velocity impacts.
Seeking to uncover the origin of quasicrystals, a team of scientists led by geologist Luca Bindi analyzed red trinitite samples. Their efforts led to the discovery of a rare 20-sided silicon grain, a quasicrystal formed as an “unintended consequence” of warfare.
Wallace stated in 2021, “This quasicrystal’s complexity is magnificent, but its formation remains a mystery. Unlocking its creation could provide a deeper understanding of nuclear explosions.”
The groundbreaking research suggests that natural phenomena, such as lightning-produced fulgurites and materials from meteor impacts, could also give rise to quasicrystals.
Furthermore, the study may aid in comprehending illicit nuclear tests and contribute to the prevention of nuclear proliferation by providing unique insights through the thermodynamic properties of quasicrystals.
Wallace emphasized the importance of this research in understanding nuclear testing programs, stating, “A quasicrystal formed at a nuclear blast site offers invaluable insights that can persist indefinitely, unlike other decayed radioactive signatures.”
The research findings have been published in PNAS.
(A previous version of this article was published in May 2021.)