September 14, 2015

Scientists Use Lasers to Simulate Shock Effects of Meteorite Impact on Silica

Scientists Use Lasers to Simulate Shock Effects of Meteorite Impact on Silica

A SLAC study observed silica's shockingly fast transformation into a highly compressed form found in meteor craters.

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Scientists used high-power laser beams at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to simulate the shock effects of a meteorite impact in silica, one of the most abundant materials in the Earth’s crust. They observed, for the first time, its shockingly fast transformation into the mineral stishovite – a rare, extremely hard and dense form of silica.

You can scoop up bits of stishovite at the scene of meteorite impacts, such as a 50,000-year-old meteor crater in Arizona that measures about 3/4-mile across and about 570 feet deep. A similar form also exists naturally at the extreme pressures of the Earth’s mantle, hundreds of miles below ground.

The Speed of Stishovite

In the experiment at SLAC, researchers used lasers to create a shock wave in samples of silica glass. The heat and compression of this shock wave caused tiny crystals, or “grains,” of stishovite to grow within just a few nanoseconds, or billionths of a second. This speed defies predictions that the changes take tens or even hundreds of times longer.

“The beauty here is that the quality of the data enabled us to make a measurement that gives us entirely new insight into the mechanism for this transformation,” said Arianna Gleason, who led the experiment at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. The work was published in the Sept. 4 issue of Nature Communications.

“Figuring out how atoms rearrange themselves in this material is important, and to our great surprise, what we expected to be a slower process is really rapid,” said Gleason, who was a postdoctoral researcher at SLAC and Stanford University at the time of the 2012 experiment and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “That was not known before. LCLS gave us access to this ultrashort timescale combined with the capability to generate a shockwave, which is unique.”

New Insight in Planetary, Materials Science

The improved understanding gives researchers new insight about the basic properties of silica and other materials, and could ultimately lead to improved models of planetary formation and composition and new approaches for designing future materials with improved functionality, such as strength.

In the LCLS experiment, researchers aimed two optical laser pulses at the same point on the silica samples. They used brilliant, ultrashort X-ray pulses produced by LCLS to explore the resulting shock effects on a timescale of femtoseconds and from an atom’s-eye view. They varied the arrival time of the X-ray pulses to pinpoint the speed of the material’s transformation.

Creating stishovite with laser light: The whitish bands that appear in this compiled sequence of X-ray-produced images allow scientists to identify the ultrafast emergence of the mineral stishovite after shocking samples of fused silica with a high-power laser. The time-delay in this sequence is measured in nanoseconds ("ns"). (Arianna Gleason/Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Previous experiments, including high-compression experiments that squeezed samples between diamonds, lacked the ultrafast timescales and the atomic-level resolution made possible by LCLS X-rays.

Researchers have since conducted follow-up experiments that explore other shock properties in this and other materials, including metals and semiconductors heavily used in industry.

“We’re really just scratching the surface of being able to visualize transformations during shock compression in real time via snapshots with LCLS, and in understanding the states of materials in the interior of our own planet and other planets,” said Gleason.

Other scientists participating in the study were from Los Alamos National Laboratory, LCLS, the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES) at SLAC, Stanford, Washington State University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the Center for High Pressure Science and Technology Advanced Research in Shanghai. The work was supported by the DOE Office of Science, National Science Foundation, Mineralogical Society of America and the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program at Los Alamos Laboratory.

Citation: A.E. Gleason, et al., Nature Communications, 4 September 2015 (10.1038/ncomms9191)

For questions or comments, contact the SLAC Office of Communications at

SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, Calif., SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Image - Meteor Crater, formed by a meteorite impact 50,000 years ago in Arizona, produced a hard, compressed form of silica known as stishovite. Researchers measured the transformation of a fused silica glass into stishovite using SLAC's X-ray laser.
Image - Arianna Gleason, a former postdoctoral researcher at SLAC and Stanford University, sets up a laser shock experiment in a chamber at the Matter in Extreme Conditions chamber at SLAC's LCLS.
Image - This image shows an illuminated stishovite crystal (yellow). Stishovite is a hard, compressed form of silica that ordinarily appears clear or translucent. Researchers confirmed the rapid transformation of silica to stishovite in a SLAC experiment.
Image - The experimental chamber at the Matter in Extreme Conditions station at SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source. This chamber was used for an experiment studying the transfromation of fused silica to stishovite. (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)