Opals have fascinated people for centuries. As early as the first century AD, the Roman Pliny wrote of opals:
‘In them you shall see the living fire of ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea-green of the emerald all glittering together in an incredible mixture of light.’
Mark Antony loved them, and is thought to have assaulted a senator to get a particularly nice one. Napoleon presented Josephine with ‘The Burning of Troy’, a magnificent red example. Shakespeare called them ‘that miracle and queen of gems’, and Queen Victoria of Great Britain made the new discoveries from far-off Australia a fashion necessity.
Prized for their vivid hues, Australia’s renowned precious opals command retail prices from US$5 to $3,000 per carat, depending on quality. The finest opals have become more expensive than many other gems, and Australia is responsible for practically all of the world’s supply. (Mexico is the only other significant producer.) Coober Pedy, together with Andamooka and Mintabie, all in South Australia, account for approximately 70 percent of total world production. However, since 1988 the value of production from Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, with its famed high-quality black opal, has outstripped the South Australian fields.
The opals are said to have formed millions of years ago (30 million years ago at Coober Pedy), although the host rocks are all claimed to be more than 65–70 million years old. And surprising as it may seem, the ingredients of opal are commonplace stuff. Water in the ground carrying dissolved silica (similar to the glass in windows) is said to have seeped through beds of sand and grit, where the silica particles are deposited in cracks. As the water subsequently evaporated, the silica particles became ‘cemented’ together to form the opal. Light bending around the silica produces the variety of glowing colours.
Fossils made of opal
Even fossils found in the host rocks have not escaped the percolating silica-rich groundwaters. Occasionally, bones, seashells and seed pods are found fossilized by having been ‘turned’ into opal. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years is ‘Eric’ the pliosaur (a marine reptile), which was the subject of high-profile public fund-raising by The Australian Museum in Sydney in order to purchase these opalized bones from the Coober Pedy miner who found them in 1987. ‘Eric’ is said to be about 100 million years old. No wonder then, in most people’s minds, because of these claimed time scales, and because of the almost universal perception/indoctrination that geological processes are almost always slow and gradual, opals ‘must’ have taken a long time to form in the ground.
‘Not so’, says Len Cram, a Lightning Ridge ‘bush’ scientist who earned his Ph.D. for his opal research.
Secret of ‘growing’ opals
A committed Christian, Len has discovered the secret that has enabled him to actually ‘grow’ opals in glass jars stored in his wooden shed laboratory, and the process takes only a matter of weeks! (See: Snelling, A., Growing Opals—Australian Style, Creation 12(1):10–15, 1989.) Len’s man-made opals are so good that even experienced Lightning Ridge miners can’t tell the difference between them and opals found in the ground. Furthermore, scientists from Australia’s CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) can’t distinguish Len’s opal from natural opal even under an electron microscope—they look identical!
No, Len is not about to disclose the formula and ‘flood’ the world with man-made opals. His quest has always been to find out how opal forms so as to discredit uniformitarian (slow and gradual) geological theories. He believes the opals took only a few months to form within suitable portions of the thick sediment layers laid down catastrophically during Noah’s Flood, and his experiments undeniably demonstrate that this was feasible.
All it takes is an electrolyte (a chemical solution that conducts electricity), a source of silica and water, and some alumina and feldspar. The basic ingredient in Len’s ‘recipe’ is a chemical called tetraethylosilicate (TEOS for short), which is an organic molecule containing silica. The amount of alumina which turns to aluminium oxide determines the hardness of the opal.
The opal-forming process is one of ion exchange, a chemical process that involves building the opal structure ion by ion (an ion is an electrically charged atom, or group of atoms [molecule]). The process starts at some point and spreads until all the critical ingredients, in this case the electrolyte, are used up. Within a matter of weeks of this initial formation, the newly forming opal has beautiful colour patterns, but it still has a lot of water in it. Slowly over months, further chemical changes take place, the silica gel consolidating as the water is ‘squeezed’ out.
Len can now ‘grow’ opal in natural Lightning Ridge opal dirt, the sandy grit in which the natural opals are found. Once the electrolyte is mixed into the opal dirt, colour starts to form within four to six days. Seams of opal then actually grow, identical in shape and form to that found in the ground, some with colour and some without, the process taking about three months. Thus seam opal is not necessarily a sedimentary deposit in previously existing cracks in the opal dirt. Rather, the chemical reaction which ‘creates’ the opal makes the seam from the opal dirt itself where no crack or seam previously existed. Len says this achievement is a ‘world first’, and that viscosity evidently plays a major role in this crucial ion-exchange process.
Rapid opals fit Bible’s timescale
Len’s experiments not only provide an explanation of how opals form, but the short timescale of only a matter of years is consistent with the biblical framework and can readily account for the field observations of natural opal in its host rocks. Furthermore, this means that his short timescale also applies to the fossilization process. The bones of ‘Eric’ the pliosaur (for example) need not have taken thousands or millions of years to fossilize. The most likely explanation of their preservation via opalization is now therefore the same replacement (ion-exchange) process that Len has so graphically demonstrated in his glass jars, and that takes only months to years.
So the evolutionary ‘stories’ of opal formation and fossilization slowly over thousands and millions of years have to be rewritten. Since pliosaurs and other creatures need to be buried catastrophically to ensure their subsequent fossilization, the rock layers hosting the opals and opalized bones are best explained by catastrophic deposition during the global Flood. Chemical processes then took over to form the opals in the rock layers and opalize the bones in the months and years that followed.
Today we can admire and enjoy the beauty and fire of these dazzling precious opals and opalized bones. But when we realize, elucidated by research based on creationist presuppositions, that their formation resulted from catastrophic judgment bringing death, we are reminded of our Creator who was judged and died on our behalf to again transform dirt to beauty.
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Creation 12:1 (December 1989)