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Planet Earth

Fortress of Solitude-like Cave Houses Ridiculously Slow-Growing Crystals

Researcher uses a custom-built, ultrasensitive microscope to 
determine that a sample grew 0.000000000014 millimeter per second—the equivalent of a pencil width every 16,000 years.

By Jennifer BaroneJanuary 18, 2012 6:00 AM
gypsumcave.jpg
NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team | NULL

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The 36-foot-long beams of gypsum in Mexico’s Cave of Crystals are the largest exposed crystals on earth. Now Spanish crystallographer Juan Manuel García-Ruiz has awarded them another record: They exhibit the slowest crystal growth ever measured. 

The cave’s stable temperature and mineral content fostered slow but steady growth for a million years or more. Such conditions may be ideal for crystals, but not for those studying them. “You’re in the house of Superman,” García-Ruiz says of the 110 degree, 99 percent humidity chamber. “But if you stay for half an hour, you die.”

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