Never-before-seen 'crystal-like matter' hidden in a chunk of fossilized lightning is probably a brand new mineral

A close-up of the fossilized lightning, or fulgurite, that contained the potential new mineral. (Image credit: Bindi et al. 2023, (CC BY 4.0))

A potentially brand new mineral may have been hiding inside a chunk of "fossilized lightning" from Florida, scientists have revealed. 

"We have never seen this material occur naturally on Earth," Mathew Pasek, a geoscientist at the University of South Florida, said in a statement. "Minerals similar to it can be found in meteorites and space, but we've never seen this exact material anywhere."

The fossilized lightning chunk, or fulgurite, was created when lightning struck a tree near New Port Richey. Fulgurites form when powerful lightning bolts discharge through the ground, which melts and fuses any nearby soil, sand, rock and organic debris into a singular metallic-looking lump. 

The owner of the New Port Richey tree sold the fulgurite to Pasek, who studies high-energy chemical reactions like those triggered by lightning. After cracking open the rocky lump, which was around 2.8 inches (7 cenitmeters) long and 0.8 inches (2 cm) wide, Pasek and fellow researchers discovered a "colorful, crystal-like matter" within the fulgurite. Subsequent analysis revealed that the mysterious matter was a previously unknown material consisting mainly of calcium phosphate (CaHPO3). The team strongly suspects that the new material is a brand-new mineral type, but it will take time for this to be confirmed by other scientists.

The researchers published their findings March 14 in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

Related: Powerful laser blast used to control lightning for the first time 

An electron microscope image of the fulgurite. The potential new mineral appears dark grey and is peppered with tiny metallic chunks. (Image credit: Bindi et al. 2023, (CC BY 4.0))

During their analysis, the researchers also tried, and failed, to recreate the mineral in a lab. The scientists believe they failed to recreate the new material because it rapidly forms under precise conditions that are hard to predict and replicate: Every time they got close, the compound would start to break down into something else because it had been heated for too long. 

The researchers hope that this form of calcium phosphate can soon be confirmed as a new mineral, at which point it will be officially named. They also believe that other brand-new mineral types could be created through a similar pathway and want to examine more fulgurites to test this theory.

This is not the first time that an unexpected compound has been discovered in fossilized lightning. In December 2022, researchers found a rare type of quasicrystal in a fulgurite unearthed in Nebraska's Sandhills. (Quasicrystals are unusual, "rule-breaking" crystals with patterns that do not repeat.) 

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023. 

  • smefinanceservices
    very inforrmative!! thanks for sharing
    checkout nsic registration
  • Anonymous_Aberration
    Oh, unknown mineral found in meteorites and asteroids... So now we're only waiting for information about the neighbourhood nature decaying and poeple dying tragically.
  • OneGoodFurBoj
    Whatever you do,DON'T let an Italian sculptor make a sword out of it.
  • misfire
    You're calling this rare, pretty rock a fossil. Sometimes in quotes, sometimes not. Was this to imply a certain irony, or were you attributing the term to Dr. Pasek?

    No age estimate is given for said fossil or "fossil", nor do you identify the geological substrate where it was found. Or was it simply buried in loose dirt next to said tree?

    Was the tree fossilized? Or is it still living? Oh, I see now. You talk about the "owner of the... New Port Richey tree". Not owner of the "land" in NPR.

    Sounds like the guy saw the lightning, went over and dug up the freshly formed concretion. I hope Dr. Pasek didn't pay too much for it.

    See, according to Wikipedia:
    A fossil... is any preserved remains, impression, or trace of any once-living thing from a past geological age.

    "Fossil lightning"? That's all I'm saying.
  • Jaypnokomis
    Fulgurites are nothing new. An award was named for the fulgurite, because of it rarity, at a high school I worked at in 2005, and possibly before. The head science teacher would present it, and explain what a fulgurite was. So, I'm not sure what "new" discovery would have been found. Here's the wikipedia page for fulgurites: