Scientists have discovered that an ancient “catastrophic collision” between a dwarf planet and an asteroid is responsible for the creation of a rare and mysterious cosmic gem.
The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that a 4.5 billion-year collision created lonsdaleite, a crystal that could potentially be harder than ordinary diamonds. Its crystal structure is hexagonal, which explains why lonsdaleite is also called “hexagonal diamond”.
Their discovery came from the discovery of the gem in ureilite meteorites, which Space.com says are a “rare class of space rocks” that scientists believe contain material from the mantle of dwarf plants.
Scientists used advanced electron microscopy to analyze meteorites and create snapshots of lonsdaleite and diamond formation.
Dougal McCulloch, director of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility, said he and his team found “clear evidence” that the crystal formed in a newly discovered process.
It’s like a “supercritical chemical vapor deposition process,” he said, a process that is also one way people make lab-grown diamonds. It is likely that the process took place inside space rocks and “probably on the dwarf planet shortly after a catastrophic collision,” she said.
They predict that lonsdaleite was somehow replaced by diamonds as its environment cooled and pressure dropped, the scientists said.
And they didn’t just find the source of the mysterious crystal.
“This study categorically demonstrates that lonsdaleitis exists in nature,” McCulloch said. “We also discovered the largest lonsdaleite crystals known to date which are down to one micron in size, much, much finer than a human hair.”
All of this could help pave the way for progress in industrial processes, the team said.
“Nature has therefore given us a process to try to replicate in industry,” said geologist and Monash University professor Andy Tomkins. “We think lonsdaleite could be used to make tiny, ultra-hard machine parts if we can develop an industrial process that promotes the replacement of preformed graphite parts with lonsdaleite.”
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