SEFFNER, Fla. — University of South Florida professor Matthew Pasek said he recently discovered the formation of a new phosphorous material inside a rock that was struck by lightning he purchased on eBay a decade ago.
"We chopped it up and found a new variety of the element phosphorus,” said Pasek, a USF geoscientist. “A new form of phosphorus that we had never seen before occur in nature.”
Pasek, along with Luca Bindi — a professor of mineralogy and crystallography at the University of Florence in Italy — made the discovery and had their study published in the Nature Journal in Communications Earth and Environment.
“Most of this is a strange mineral that we find very rarely on the surface of the earth,” said Pasek. “A little bit more frequently in space.”
Pasek said high-energy events like a lightning strike can cause unique chemical reactions. The geoscientist said he bought the rock on eBay a decade ago and only recently got around to analyzing it.
“The entire set was probably $150 or so, but to me, now, it has been very much priceless because it has something completely new in it,” he said. “They saw that a tree had gotten struck by lightning and then dug up around the roots this fulgurite. So, they put it up knowing they had something somewhat valuable.”
Pasek said because the material is rare, it’s unlikely it could be mined to produce fertilizer similar to other phosphates. He said there’s a limited amount of phosphorous on the planet and the discovery could help scientists better understand how to manage the leaky phosphorous cycle.
“When we apply phosphorous, for instance to fertilizer at the agricultural field, some of that phosphorous we know where it goes but there’s a small portion that goes away and we don’t know where it goes,” he said. “So, this is possibly a route that it’s leaking. So, understanding this is an important part of making sure our resources can be renewable.”
There are plans to further investigate the material to determine if it could be officially declared a mineral, according to USF.