FANTASTIC FLASHES AND FULMINATION – FULGURITE, THE LIGHTNING GLASS
Some stones form deep in the Earth and others come from outer space.
Fulgurite, however, is weird and comes from lightning striking sand or stone. This causes it to melt and later harden into fulgurite. The name comes from the latin fulgur (“lightning”) and ites (“stone” or “mineral”).
Despite the name, fulgurite is not a stone, it’s a glass. Some don’t even classify it as a proper mineral, but instead as a mineraloid. Mineraloids display elements of minerals, but are not true minerals due to a lack of crystallinity. For this same reason, common glass is considered a mineral as it is a non-crystalline substance.
With the scientific bits out of the way, we can talk about the fun stuff (unless of course you love the technical details). At the front, why is fulgurite so important? How is it depicted in popular culture? What is fulgurite good for?
SPARK OF LIFE – WHY FULGURITE IS IMPORTANT
A study brought to light why fulgurite is actually way more important than we give it credit for. In fact, it may be a necessary component of life.
A question that has plagued philosophers, scientists, and the common person is how life on Earth started. For a while, scientists were convinced that meteorites containing phosphorus (a necessary component for life as it is necessary for DNA and other parts of the body) struck the Earth. The earliest organisms on the planet used the meteorite’s phosphorus to grow and develop, but this theory was questioned with some new research. It turns out that fulgurite can break down and produce phosphorous. While meteorites aren’t absent from this new model of early life, it doesn’t have the monolithic role in the history of Earth’s earliest life today.
FLASH OF CREATIVITY – ART, FULGURITE, AND MEDIA PORTRAYAL
Fulgurite enjoys modest popularity in public media. The most common type is that of the fulgurite sculpture. One of the most prominent movies to feature fulgurite is Sweet Home Alabama. This romantic comedy stars Reese Witherspoon as Melanie Carmichael. The glass displayed in the movie is supposedly fulgurite, but in reality is hand-blown glass. Real fulgurite is not as clear as the glass depicted in the film.
The misconception that fulgurite is a crystal makes an embarrassing appearance in the popular show Supernatural. In the episode Meet the New Boss, Bobby claims that fulgurites are both rare and crystalline. Both are false. Fulgurites are actually not that uncommon and are not crystalline.
Even the sci-fi show X-Files gets a basic fact wrong. Agent Mulder claims that glass cannot form from lightning striking sand.
In defense of Supernatural and X-Files, these errors can be explained by character ignorance. Still, there is no excusing Sweet Home Alabama.
Fulgurite appears in some video games too. Popular MMO Guild Wars 2 arguably has the least accurate depiction of fulgurite out of any fictional setting. It is a “crystalline ore” created by mixing obsidian shards, airship oil, auric dust, and ley line sparks. It is ironic that actual glass (obsidian) is used to create crystalline material in-game that, in real life, is glass!
The Warhammer 40k Universe has a neat spin on fulgurite. In this setting, it is not just normal lightning that can make fulgurite. Psychic lightning can also make fulgurite and it becomes a powerful, magical artifact when done this way.
Fulgurite isn’t limited to fiction. In fact, fulgurite sculptures are in public consciousness. Unfortunately, misinformation is also spread about it.
A Facebook post from user “Just Wow” on October 14th, 2021 showed two colossal rocky structures on a beach. An accompanying description read "When Lightning Strikes Sand. It’s called fulgurite."
In reality, they are sculptures in Puerto Rico created by Massachusetts based artist Mathew Kaliner and they’re quite old. The oldest instance of the image that can be found today is from 2007 from Kaliner’s Flickr account.
RIDE THAT LIGHTNING – WHAT CAN YOU USE IT FOR?
At present, there are not many technical uses for fulgurite. It is, however, a unique substance. There are few types of glasses created in this fashion and that makes it a unique novelty. It is also distinct for being a glass that isn’t clearly vitreous or transparent. In this regard, it is like obsidian (although obsidian often has a vitreous luster).
Fulgurite is also scientifically notable, as explained above. It has been researched, though not extensively, despite being known for quite some time.
Lastly, fulgurite is pretty for decoration and is quite a novelty. If you enjoy raw, natural products, then fulgurite may be perfect for you.
Black, Riley. “Ancient Lightning May Have Sparked Life on Earth.” Smithsonian Magazine, 16 Mar. 2021, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ancient-lightning-may-have-sparked-life-earth-180977248.
Carter, Elizabeth A., et al. "Rapid Raman mapping of a fulgurite." Analytical and bioanalytical chemistry 397.7 (2010): 2647-2658.
Fauzia, Miriam. “Fact Check: Images Show Sand Sculptures by an Artist, Not Lightning Strike Fulgurites.” USA TODAY, 29 Oct. 2021, eu.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/10/29/fact-check-images-show-artist-created-sculptures-not-fulgurites/6191411001.
https://www.imdb.com contains information on the mentioned movies and episodes
Rogers, Austin F. "A review of the amorphous minerals." The Journal of Geology 25.6 (1917): 515-541.