Third-ever natural quasicrystal found in Siberian meteorite
The third quasicrystal ever to be found in nature (Credit:Luca Bindi, Chaney Lin, Chi Ma & Paul J. Steinhardt)
Misha Gajewski, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, December 9, 2016 4:16PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, December 10, 2016 12:25PM EST
Scientists have discovered an incredibly rare and unusual crystal, known as a quasicrystal, in a meteorite previously found in Siberia in 2011.
While there are over 100 lab-made quasicrystals, this crystal, identified in a new paper published Thursday in Scientific Reports, is the first quasicrystal to be found in nature that wasn’t previously also discovered in a lab.
It is only the third quasicrystal ever to be found in nature, the other two were also found on the same Khatyrka meteorite.
“This is a whole new class of material that we’ve only known about for the past 30 years,” the study’s lead author Professor Paul Steinhardt, from Princeton University, tells CTVNews.ca.
“We thought we knew all the shapes and forms matter could make. We thought for 200 years that [quasicrystals] were impossible because they violate certain mathematic principles that we thought were rigorously true.”
Quasicrystals are almost crystals but their atoms don’t follow the rules. Like crystals, their atoms are arranged in perfectly neat patterns, but unlike them, the patterns never repeat.
Steinhardt gives an example of tiling your shower with one type of tile. He explains that there are only so many types of shapes of tiles you can use to cover the space without having gaps.
“For a long time we thought that’s how it was in nature,” he said.
But with quasicrystals you can tile using more than one shape -- and they don’t have to be repeated with the same amount of frequency– and somehow they are able to maintain their structure.
This means you can now make materials that are “structurally impossible.”
Steinhart says this most recent quasicrystal was found after Steinhardt and his team spent years searching through the tiny samples of the meteorite, just a few micrometres wide, that was taken from Khatyrka in north-eastern Russia.
Using an electron microprobe the team confirmed it was a never before seen quasicrystal.
Steinhardt and his team don’t know how the quasicrystal was made but they believe it may have crystallized under high pressure following a period of melting induced by a shock, such as an impact with another object in outer space.
Steinhardt believes that the crystal was formed more than 4 billion years ago and tells CTVNews.ca that analyzing it could help uncover how our early solar system formed.
While quasicrystals are undoubtedly interesting there hasn’t been any practical uses discovered for them yet.
Steinhardt assures CTVNews.ca that applications will come.
“Think of them as where crystals were 150 years ago,” he says, suggesting possibilities for quasicrystals to be used in electronics or photonic technology.
In the meantime, Steinhardt is still on the hunt for new quasicrystals, hoping the next one he finds was formed on earth instead of in space.