We’ve Found a New Mineral Even Harder Than Diamond (And It Turns Out It Comes From Space)

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For decades, lonsdaleite has been something of a philosopher’s stone for geologists. Hard as a diamond (if not harder), the very existence of this “super crystal” had been called into question. Now an international team has not only managed to prove its existence but also point out its possible extraterrestrial origin.

A 55 year old mystery.
The Lonsdaleite was initially discovered in 1967 in the Barringer Crater, a geological structure located in Arizona and formed 50,000 years ago after the impact of a meteorite. In it they found the material that they named in honor of the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, the first female member of the Royal Society of London.

But confirmation of the discovery would take half a century to arrive. The reason is that many believed that lonsdaleite did not exist as such, but was a strange, anomalous form of a known mineral: diamond. Both are allotropes of carbon, that is, elemental carbon entangled in different structures: diamond in cubes and lonsdaleite in hexagons.

More evidence was needed that these crystals corresponded to a new mineral, now an article published in the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesigned by an international team of scientists from different research centers has shed light on the matter.

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Closer to the answer.
The new work points to lonsdaleite as a very real mineral. The enigma has been solved thanks to two factors. The first is that the samples we have are much larger than those we have known until now, on the order of 1,000 times larger. The second is the technical development in recent decades, which has given us new

In the words of Paul Asimow picked up by CNNthe professor of geology and geochemistry at CalTech (who has not been involved in the recent study) explained that “you really need to take advantage of a number of recent developments in microscopy to do what [los investigadores] they have done and as well as they have done.”

Not much different from a diamond.
Despite their structural difference (which makes the new mineral even harder than diamond), the two minerals, diamond and lonsdaleite, would form similarly, through one of three processes. They can appear when facing carbon for long periods under high pressure and high temperatures. This is the way diamonds usually form on the surface of the Earth.

These minerals can also form after a blow, a shock, such as the collision of a meteorite. The third mechanism through which they would form would be the vapors released from the graphite, whose atoms would “stick” to an existing piece of diamond, making it grow in size.

A dwarf planet in our environment.
The authors also point out in their study the origin of this mineral. Unlike diamonds, the origin of lonsdaleite would be extraterrestrial and would derive not from high pressures and temperatures but from an impact. This impact would have been in that it destroyed, about 4,500 million years ago, a dwarf planet in our solar system. This fact would have occurred approximately at the time in which our planet was formed.

A discovery with applications.
The “new” mineral could replace diamond in some of the applications where its hardness is key. Mining would therefore be the sector where the potential of this material could be exploited. For this it will be necessary to find ways to synthesize it as it can already be done with the diamond. Hence the importance of this important step when it comes to understanding the nature of this mineral and, above all, having managed to decipher its origin.

“Nature has provided us with a process to try to replicate it in the industry. We believe lonsdaleite could be used to make small, ultra-hard machine parts if we can develop an industrial process that promotes the replacement of preformed graphite parts with lonsdaleite.” in a press release Andy Tomkins, one of the team’s researchers.

A rare mineral, some frequent puzzles.
It may seem strange to doubt the existence of something tangible, but the truth is that analyzing and cataloging what we find in nature does not have to be an easy task. Geology and the physics of materials still have mysteries to solve.

We are still discovering minerals, and space exploration has a lot to do with it. Lonsdaleite, for example, is not the only mineral that we theorize about before being able to assure its existence. Only time and technological progress will determine whether the promises posed by this new mineral materialize.

Image | RMIT University

For decades, lonsdaleite has been something of a philosopher’s stone for geologists. Hard as a diamond (if not harder), the…

For decades, lonsdaleite has been something of a philosopher’s stone for geologists. Hard as a diamond (if not harder), the…

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