An ultra-rare quasicrystal has been discovered to exist in a piece of Russian meteorite. The rarity of the crystal can be judged from the fact that this material has only been detected only the third time ever, as it only originates in the outer space.
Adding to the mystical aura around the material is the fact that they have an incredibly peculiar atomic structure, which has been dismissed “impossible” for decades.
Quasicrystals are considered to be very special findings since they comprise of a unique atomic structure having both the symmetrical properties of a crystal while the chaos of an amorphous solid. In our planet’s materials, generally, only one particular configuration can exist. Either crystals like snowflakes, diamonds, and table salt have atoms in near-perfect symmetry, or polycrystals such as metals, rocks, and ice have more a chaotic and disorderly structure. Same is the case with amorphous solids, such as glass, wax, and plastics.
This quasicrystal specimen was discovered by a team of geologists led by Luca Bindi from the University of Florence in Italy. It was found in a tiny grain of meteorite that landed in the Khatyrka region, Eastern Russia five years back. The material has been confirmed to have the piece of quasicrystal inside, which incredibly is just a few micrometers wide.
Paul Steinhardt from Princeton University, who was also part of the team, told Motherboard,
“What is encouraging is that we have already found three different types of quasicrystals in the same meteorite, and this new one has a chemical composition that has never been seen for a quasicrystal. That suggests there is more to be found, perhaps more quasicrystals that we did not know were possible before.”
The material’s configuration was first proposed in 1982 by an Israeli chemist Daniel Shechtman. He suggested that a semi-order form of matter having an atomic structure with no repeating patterns can exist in nature.
He also managed to create a synthetic material bearing this structure in the lab. And even he was shocked at the discovery proclaiming, “Eyn chaya kao,” in Hebrew translating “There can be no such creature.”
Shechtman faced a lot of ridicule from the scientific community at that time, and he was even laughed out of his lab at one point for suggesting the existence of such a semi-ordered structure. But his contribution was finally acknowledged later, and he was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
For almost two centuries, an atomic structure with perfect symmetry was believed to have followed a strict set of rules. And before the quasicrystals were discovered, scientists had a consensus that if a structure grows by repeating symmetrical structure, it can possess only four types of rotational symmetry: two-fold, three-fold, four-fold, or six-fold.
This theory was shaken up by quasicrystals, as they have a crystal structure with a five-fold rotational symmetry.
Senior scientist at the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, Pat Theil, explained to PBS,
“If you want to cover your bathroom floor in perfectly tessellating tiles, they can only be rectangles, triangles, squares or hexagons. Any other simple shape won’t work, because it will leave a gap. But Quasicrystals are like pentagonal tiles – they can’t tessellate like squares or triangles can, but other atomic shapes move in to fill in the gaps.”
You can also see an example of this in the image at the top of the page.
Below is an actual image of the discovered quasicrystal with five-fold symmetry:
Quasicrystals are rare in nature, but they can be created in the labs very easily, and now are a part of everything from frying pans to LED lights.
Incredibly, the new quasicrystal composed of a combination of aluminum, copper, and iron atoms, in an arrangement of a pentagon pattern of oa soccer ball. This kind of chemical composition has never been found in nature, exposing our limited understanding of our universe.
The research has been published in Scientific Reports.