TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A professor at the University of South Florida discovered something never-before-seen on Earth after analyzing a dirt sample that was struck 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,” said Matthew Pasek, professor of geosciences. “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, like lightning strikes, can cause unique chemical reactions to 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 struck 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 15-20 years that there’s probably a solid form of this in rocks somewhere,” Pasek said. “And there was.”
When asked if the formation of the material could be common during lightning strikes, Pasek said it “could be.” He said, “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 that the material could be mined for uses similar to other phosphates, such as fertilizer, there are plans to further investigate the material to see if it 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,” Pasek added. “If lightning is strong enough to melt rock, it can certainly melt people, too.”