Rare quasicrystal found in Trinity test debris

May 19, 2021, 12:02PMNuclear News
Video still showing samples of red trinitite. (Source: University of Florence)

The world’s first atomic bomb test—code-named Trinity and conducted in New Mexico on July 16, 1945—had an unintended outcome that was only recently discovered.

The extreme temperatures and pressures generated by the detonation of the plutonium implosion fission device known as the “Gadget” created large amounts of trinitite, a glass-like combination of natural sand and test equipment that is typically green. Within a small sample of red trinitite, formed with copper from transmission lines for the test, researchers have confirmed the existence of the oldest known anthropogenic quasicrystal—one with a unique origin story that is well-documented in the historical records of the Trinity test over 80 years ago.

The origin and discovery of the material are explored in a video featuring members of the research team that was posted online by the University of Florence in Italy.

Rulebreakers: Like all quasicrystals, the specimen studied breaks the rules of crystallographic symmetry that apply to ordinary (periodic) crystals. The atoms within quasicrystals are arranged as in a mosaic, in regular but non-repeating patterns. The icosahedral quasicrystal discovered in red trinitite is a previously unknown composition of silicon, copper, calcium, and iron: Si61Cu30Ca7Fe2.

The international research team that proved the existence of the quasicrystal was led by Luca Bindi, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence. Its work has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is described in an article published by the University of Florence.

Naturally formed quasicrystals have been found in fragments of a 15,000-year-old meteorite in the Koryak Mountains of far east Russia, and quasicrystals have also been created in a laboratory through shock synthesis. The anthropogenic quasicrystals in red trinitite demonstrate that the transient extreme pressure and temperature conditions of an atomic bomb detonation can also produce quasicrystals.

Deterrence application: According to the research team, the discovery may have implications for nuclear deterrence. Unlike other debris formed by nuclear explosions, quasicrystals remain stable over time and can provide a record of past explosions.

The team included researchers from Princeton University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts–Lowell.

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