So, you want to petrify some wood, eh? Here is a list of the basic ingredients that you will need:
- A log (or some other chunk of wood)
- Sediment, mud, volcanic ash, lava, or some type of inorganic material in which to bury the log and create an oxygen-free environment
- Groundwater rich in silica (or other mineral commonly found in rocks)
- Additional minerals including iron, copper, and manganese for coloring
- Time and patience (because this is going to take a while – millions of years perhaps)
Petrification refers to organic material being converted entirely into stone through two main processes: permineralization and replacement. First, the log you intend to petrify must be buried completely, cutting off the oxygen supply and thereby slowing the decay process considerably. Over time, groundwater rich in silica and other minerals will deposit the minerals in the pore spaces between the cells of the log. Later, the mineral rich water will slowly dissolve the cells and replace them with the minerals as well. The slower the better, assuring that the textures of the bark and wood and details such as the tree rings will remain visible. After enough million years have passed, the log may find itself exposed, pushed out of the ground by an earthquake or landslide or some other act of nature. What entered the ground as a living or recently dead tree, is now 100% inorganic material. And it is much heavier.
The colors in your petrified log will vary depending on the presence and concentrations of minerals in the groundwater. Cobalt, copper, and chromium will create greens and blues. Iron oxides will give the log hues of red, orange and yellow. Manganese adds pink and orange. During the petrification process, various circumstances can cause the silica to form a variety of crystal structures and other formations within the log. These formations can include amethyst, agate, jasper, opal, citrine, and many others. When all is said and done, your petrified log will be a true work of art.
Petrification is a fossilization process. Thus, a section of petrified wood is a fossil, and it can be used to help paint a picture of what a particular region was like back when the tree was alive. It can also help us gain a better understanding of how life has evolved on this planet. Areas with large concentrations of petrified wood are located throughout the world, each with its own unique story to tell about the tree species once found in the area and the circumstances that led to their petrification. One such location is Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The petrified wood found there came from trees living in the area over 200 million years ago.
Is a few million years too long to wait? Scientists have developed ways to petrify wood in the laboratory in as little as four or five days. One such process was developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory about a decade ago. It involves soaking a section of wood in hydrochloric acid for two days and then in either a silica or titanium solution for another two days. After air-drying, the wood is placed in an argon gas filled furnace and slowly heated to 1400° Celsius over a period of two hours. It is then left to cool to room temperature in the argon gas. What results is a block of ceramic silicon carbide or titanium carbide. Probably not as beautiful and interesting to look at as the one that took millions of years to form, but cool nonetheless.