The University of South Florida professor bought the rock that led to his discovery of a new phosphorus material on eBay. It had been found in a New Port Richey neighborhood.
What he bought is called a fulgurite, more commonly referred to as fossilized lightning. It’s a naturally occurring clump of sand, soil or other debris caused by a lightning strike. There are many similarities, Matthew Pasek said, between this type of extreme chemical reaction from a lightning strike and that of a meteor strike.
Pasek, who teaches at the USF School of Geosciences, made the purchase more than a decade ago. He collects fulgurites, and some of them sat on his desk for years — including his eBay purchase. But after years of not really looking at the rocks, Pasek said Luca Bindi, a geologist colleague in Italy, began researching some of the fulgurites. They decided they finally wanted to take the time to find out more.
Pasek said the one he bought from eBay was notable because it had unique pieces of glass and “metal spheres.”
“We’re looking for weird stuff,” Pasek said.
Pasek, Bindi and USF geosciences graduate student Tian Feng would go on to discover one of the fulgurite samples contained a phosphorus material that had never been seen naturally on Earth.
The new material cannot be seen with the naked eye, Pasek said. Instead, the group of researchers had to cut the fulgurite, polish it and examine it with an electron microscope — a microscope that also sends a current of electrons through the object to help show the surface, Pasek said.
The microscope showed them most of the fulgurite was iron silicide — a compound of iron and silicon — but in between sections of the silicide, Pasek said they saw what appeared to be calcium phosphate.
He said he and the other researchers thought about this finding of possible calcium phosphate for a few days before coming to a realization.
“That’s not possible,” the researchers concluded.
But “not possible” really meant they had discovered something new — this material just hadn’t been seen on Earth previously. Pasek said similar substances had been created in a lab, and he believes the material he discovered could be a fairly commonly occurring substance in other fulgurites. Someone just needed to find it and identify it first.
“This was very fulfilling as a ‘hey, we finally found it,’” Pasek said.
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According to an article posted on USF’s website, Feng tried to recreate the exact material in a lab after the discovery and failed.
“The experiment was unsuccessful and indicates the material likely forms quickly under precise conditions, and if heated too long, will turn into the mineral found in meteorites,” according to the article
Pasek was part of a group of researchers who recently published the results of their work in the science journal Communications, Earth and Environment.
Pasek said he hopes to pinpoint the same phosphorus again in other fulgurites in research projects in the future. With so many lightning strikes in Florida, Pasek doesn’t think it will be hard to find another.