TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A University of South Florida professor found something never-before-seen on Earth after analyzing a dirt sample that was hit by lightning.
The phosphorus material, he said, was observed for the first time in solid form on this planet.
“We have never seen this material occur naturally on Earth,” geosciences professor Matthew Pasek said. “Minerals similar to it can be found in meteorites and space, but we’ve never seen this exact material anywhere [here on Earth].”
According to a recent study published in Communications Earth & Environment and shared by USF, Pasek examined how high-energy events, such as lightning strikes, can cause unique chemical reactions resulting in unique materials.
“When lightning strikes a tree, the ground typically explodes out and the surrounding grass dies,” Pasek said.
The electricity forms a “scar” in the surrounding soil and sends electric discharge through nearby rock, soil and sand, forming fulgurites, also known as “fossilized lightning.”
When a homeowner in New Port Richey, Florida, discovered the “lightning scar” underneath a tree that had been hit by lightning, they dug up the fulgurite and sold it online. Pasek bought the fossilized lightning about 10 years ago and began his study.
“I’ve been suggesting for 15 [to] 20 years that there’s probably a solid form of this in rocks somewhere… and there was,” Pasek said.
When asked if the formation of the material could be common during lightning strikes, Pasek said it “could be.”
“We do find materials like these spheres in a number of different lightning strikes, so I would bet for certain that there are other occurrences like this in lightning strikes and probably beyond that.”
While Pasek said it’s unlikely the material could be mined for uses similar to other phosphates, such as fertilizer, there are plans to lookin into whether the material could be officially declared a mineral.
According to the professor, it’s important to understand how much energy lightning has because then we know how much damage a lightning strike can cause on average and how dangerous it is.
“Florida is the lightning capital of the world, and lightning safety is important,” he said. “If lightning is strong enough to melt rock, it can certainly melt people, too.”