The Strange Glass Born in Nuclear Explosions

The Strange Glass Born in Nuclear Explosions
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5:30 A.M., Monday July 16th, 1945: The day dawned brighter than ever before over the New Mexico desert. But it was not the Sun's soothing rays that set the landscape alight; it was the radiant flash of the very first atomic bomb.

Trinity, the nuclear offspring of the Manhattan Project, detonated with the force of 21,000 tons of TNT. The accompanying fireball reached temperatures of 8,430 degrees Kelvin, hotter than the surface of the sun, and sent a mushroom cloud of smoke and debris soaring more than seven miles into the sky.

That day, every human on the planet was reborn into a nuclear era, one where mankind now held the power to end its existence. Also born that day was an otherworldly, greenish glass, a physical reminder of the cataclysmic explosion. Scientists dubbed the strange material trinitite.

The ghostly glass littered the ground for hundreds of meters around the blast site, though it might be more accurate to say that it "transformed" the ground. The sand, which blanketed the desert the day before, had been replaced by this new material. Walking on it was like setting foot on the surface of an alien world.

Trinity's atomic blast catalyzed the transformation. Amidst destructive turbulence and searing heat, sand was thrown up into the fireball, where it melted, reformed, and rained down upon the ground. Scientists discovered proof for this storm strewn all over in the form of trinitite beads -- molten drops that solidified before they hit the ground. Years later, these pebbles are still surfacing as ants excavate them from their tunnels.

Despite its distinctly eerie appearance, trinitite really isn't that much different from sand. The glass is composed of silicon dioxide, better known as quartz, the second-most abundant mineral in Earth's continental crust. Closer inspection, however, reveals a material tainted with trace amounts of forty different elements, many of them radioactive.

In fact, to this very day, trinitite remains radioactive, buzzing with activity from isotopes of cobalt, barium, europium, uranium, and plutonium. It's safe to handle, but one would be ill advised to make jewelry out of it.

Much of the trinitite created on that fateful July day more than sixty years ago has now been bulldozed and buried, but rare specimens do reside in the hands of collectors. Rarer still, is red trinitite, which gets its color from the presence of copper. When scientists examined samples of red trinitite under a microscope, they found metallic, round blobs within the glass. These "chondrules" were melted pieces of iron and lead from the bomb itself, mementos encased in an atomic glass.

Primary Source & Images: Eby, N., Hermes, R., Charnley, N. and Smoliga, J. A. (2010), Trinitite—the atomic rock. Geology Today, 26: 180–185. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2451.2010.00767.x

(Top Image: Shaddack)

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