Solid matter is typically understood to come in just two forms: patterned and crystalline, or amorphous and disordered. But scientists investigating fragments from the Khatyrka meteorite in Siberia have found something truly otherworldly. Hiding within grains of space rock less than a millimeter thick, they have found so-called "quasicrystals," bits of matter that seem to represent a third, in-between solid form, reports New Scientist.
Quasicrystals aren't entirely unheard of. They are theoretical entities, first dreamed up by Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University in the early 1980s, and scientists have been able to synthesize them in the lab since 1982. But they've never been found in nature — until now. So far, three different forms of quasicrystal have been uncovered, but all three were found in a single crater in Siberia, all bits from the Khatyrka meteorite.
“It’s hard to look systematically for these things, because we’re talking about grains which are typically tens, or maybe a few hundred microns, in size, and you have to look through a gigantic meteorite at each little grain that size,” said Steinhardt. “Unless you were completely crazy like we were, you wouldn’t be doing that.”
When asteroids collide?
The thing that makes quasicrystals so unreal is that they have a regular structure but not in a repeating pattern. They require extreme conditions to form, conditions too extreme to naturally form on Earth. Scientists have surmised that they might form during violent impacts in space, such as when asteroids collide. It's possible that the Siberian quasicrystals originally formed sometime in the early, chaotic years of the solar system.
It's certainly a fascinating find, but not one with any foreseeable practical applications ... not yet, anyway. Steinhardt has taken advantage of the hard, slippery surface of the odd material to fashion a quasicrystal-coated frying pan, which sits in the corner of his office, but he hopes that future scientists will find a more profound use for the stuff eventually.
"It’s not out of the question that someone will find a really good use for quasicrystals one of these days,” said Paul Asimow at the California Institute of Technology, who helped study the origin of the materials.