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Red Trinitite, a Piece of Atomic History

Red trinitite is technically not a true mineral, because it was not formed through a geologic process. Rather, this brick-red colored glass-like material was created at 5:29 A.M. Mountain Time on July 16, 1945 in the superheated blast fireball of the test of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The atomic blast was so hot that it melted the surrounding desert sand, turning it into glass. Trinity was the code name for the first atomic test, hence the name "trinitite" for this material (for more on the Trinity test, see the 2023 release "Oppenheimer" movie). Green-colored trinitite, or green trinitite, was most abundantly created during the Trinity test blast. Red trinitite, however, is very rare, and gets its red color from the incorporation of material originating from copper electrical wiring and iron in the test tower being fused together with the quartz and feldspar sand grains from the desert floor. Of particular interest is that this specimen of red trinitite is brightly fluorescent under short wave UV light. The size of this specimen is approximately 3 cm x 1.5 cm.

This specimen of red trinitite shows a bright, multi-colored, fluorescent response under short wave UV (254 nm). The more abundant green variety of trinitite typically shows little to no fluorescence under UV. Although it is not known what the activators of fluorescence are in red trinitite, it is likely related to its copper and iron content, which is not present in green trinitite.

Same specimen of red trinitite shown under visible light. Contained within this glass-like material are melted bits of the first atomic bomb and the support structures and various radionuclides formed during the detonation. The red color is due to copper and iron content from the materials of construction of the support tower. This specimen is also magnetic due to its inclusion of iron and is mildly radioactive (~400 cpm).

Hand-held photograph of the specimen to show scale.

The Trinity test blast. This photograph shows the instant of formation of my red trinitite specimen. It was taken by my uncle, Jack Aeby, who was on-site to witness the test in 1945. The Trinity device was a Plutonium bomb. Therefore, the radionuclide composition of trinitite consists of products resulting from the fission of the plutonium core, including the isotopes Am-241, Cs-137, Co-60 and Eu-152. These radionuclides account for the radioactivity of these specimens. Trinitite no longer emits sufficient radiation to be harmful, unless ingested.

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