5 Alien Materials That Exist Naturally Here on Earth
Astronauts and space pirates are exploring the cosmos, in search of unobtanium, transformium and precious red matter. Their quest may be fruitless, since none of those materials really exist. But don’t let the constraints of cruel reality dampen your imagination. Other materials do exist, and boy do they tend to get weird.
Natural gas may be found in great big deposits of its own underground, or it may be mixed up with other fossil fuels. That was why, incidentally, when we first found oil, we considered the gas part a waste product and burned it off onsite. You can also find natural gas trapped in a certain mineral, the one known as water. Yes, water is a mineral (just one that happens to be liquid at room temperature), and when methane is trapped in water crystals, that’s called flammable ice. It has a second, equally extreme name as well: “fire ice.”
Flammable ice may exist on Mars and on the moon Titan, which would suggest signs of life, and our telescopes also search for methane signatures on far more distant planets. It took us surprisingly long to find the stuff on Earth, where we spotted it in the ocean in the 1960s. It turns out the semi-deep parts of the ocean contain a lot of flammable ice. We don’t have exact numbers, since the ocean is too scary to thoroughly explore, but current estimates say there may be more methane trapped in flammable ice than the mass of all other fossil fuels in the world, combined.
So, is this some promising new energy source, ready to power our kitchens and our factories? Maybe! Or, maybe the warming oceans will melt the ice and release gigatons of methane, setting off a chain reaction of further global warming to push us ever closer to catastrophe. That’s what so exciting about science — you never know where discoveries will lead us.
What is the hardest substance in the world? Many of you will answer “diamond.” A couple pure substances are even harder, including lonsdaleite (an alternate form of carbon we’ve found in meteorites), and we’ve managed to make harder materials still by combining multiple substances together. We’ve also found a natural composite material harder than diamond, in a most unlikely place: inside the mouths of snails.
This is one more discovery from the mysterious ocean. Sea snails have teeth that combine two substances — a crystal of iron called goethite and a protein matrix. You might have thought snails have no teeth at all, but sea snails do, and these teeth are both hard and strong. Hardness and strength are different qualities, you see. Diamond is hard, which means you can’t easily scratch or cut it, but you may well be able to smash a diamond with a hammer. Limpet teeth are harder than diamond and also strong, stronger than Kevlar. Snails use their teeth to grip rocks and also to grind rocks down.
If you think you should now fear these snails, who will cut and smash through your body without mercy, put those worries aside. In reality, your body is so fragile that any animal’s teeth could make short work of it, so the added pressure of the strongest natural material on Earth makes no significant difference.
Other than the ocean, the scariest place in the world is Australia, a land that lends its name to some strange glassy objects found there. They’re called australites, and we’ve been puzzling over them for thousands of years. Ancient people called them “ooga,” which sounds like made-up caveman talk but is an actual word meaning “staring eyes.” Europeans who came to Australia called them “obsidian bombs,” falsely theorizing they came from volcanos. Europeans also gave them one other name: “blackfellows’ buttons.”
We’re not totally sure where australites came from. Once we dispensed with the volcano theory, we dubbed them extraterrestrial, having come from meteorites, but we don’t think that’s true anymore. Instead, we think an asteroid struck the ground in the distant past, somewhere around 800,000 years ago. It hit so hard that it threw terrestrial material into space. This material then came back, now transformed by its journey and smoothed through reentry.
“If these weird rocks can survive reentry into the atmosphere,” reasoned scientists, “so can we.” So, in the 1960s, NASA modeled the Apollo spacecraft after australites, to match their heat resistance as well as their aerodynamism. As a result, no astronauts died on reentry — at least not until Columbia in 2003, by which point we knew how to properly design spacecraft and had only ourselves to blame.
Spontaneously Combustible Coconuts
The coconut is a mundane object compared to most of what we’re discussing today. You’ve run into coconuts many times when you’ve been stranded on desert islands or when you bought one from a roadside vendor. And yet the dried flesh of the coconut holds strange properties and is a class 4.2 hazardous substance.
This dried material is called copra, and it’s hazardous because of spontaneous combustion. We don’t merely mean that copra is highly flammable, like so many dried materials that can catch fire with the smallest spark. We mean that copra tends to burst into flames when exposed to moist air. It may burst into flames when it touches water. If copra does hit fire, it may explode, and will sit dormant and wait to reignite even after you have extinguished the flames.
The name “copra” comes from a Tamil word. The word may remind you of the Greek root copro-, a part of such words as coprophagia and coprophilia, but copra has nothing to do with feces. We are not here today to talk about the reaction of fire with feces.
Bird shit has always held fascinating properties, sending us rushing to mine the stuff to exploit it and sometimes sparking actual wars. When we weren’t using it as fertilizer, we were digging out compounds from it to use in creating gunpowder. Bird shit can also assume a stranger final form.
Below is the common kestrel, Falco tinnunculus:
Like everyone, the kestrel poops. Sometimes, it poops above a Russian coal mine, where the blasts of hot gasses transform the guano into something new. It becomes a mineral, which can be colorless, reddish or lilac. Its formula is C₅H₄N₄O₃ · 2H₂O — or, if you want to get really detailed, NHC(O)NHC₂C(O)NHC(O)NH·2H₂O.
You may think kestrel droppings transmuted through the power of the flaming earth would be too obscure a material to bother documenting. But in 2017, the International Mineralogical Association (IMA) approved its entry into their official list of mineral species. It’s called tinnunculite and was discovered by a Moscow professor in the mountains of Kukisvumchorr. We’ve only documented about 7 percent of all minerals, say the IMA. The craziest discoveries remain ahead of us.