January 22, 2023 was the height of a wave of social media posts about what people claimed were “electric rocks” found in the DR of Congo. A video showed a close up of someone touching two rocks together and producing a strong electric spark. The clip was widely shared and accumulated millions of views.
I won’t link the videos here because I really don’t want to encourage more of this garbage. Below are screenshots from Twitter.
The interest in the “amazing news” about the discovery of “electric rocks” resulted in the spreading of another video where a man touches the ends of a wire connected to a light bulb to a small rock and the light illuminates.
False claims abound
People commenting or promoting the videos suggest that the land here is rich in these electric rocks and will soon be plundered. Others say it’s not news – that it’s just piezoelectrical properties of some rocks. Additional commenters said the metal was lithium – a hot topic these days because of its value to technology manufacturing. And then there are those who, possibly in jest, but it’s impossible to tell, say that the rocks are made of a magical metal like vibranium, a mythical substance from Marvel’s Black Panther universe that can store and release energy. The story then evolved to include dubious news sources saying that a mountain of these rocks had been just discovered and that they could ease the African energy woes. All of these claims were false.
The BBC tracked down one of the videos from at least November 2022 on Facebook. The provenance is not clear. While the videos are real, they are deceptively presented. The videos fail to show a hidden electricity source. In the first video, the electrical sources is out of the frame. In the second, where the man holds what looks to be a piece of pyrite, he may be holding a battery. By closing the circuit on the rock, the light glows. But the rock is not what is charging the circuit. He could have just touched the ends of the wire to each other.
No rocks on earth behave like a free battery this way. Metallic rocks are good conductors of electricity but no rocks can produce an electrical current on its own.
The description of these rocks as lithium was misguided. Lithium in its pure state is highly reactive and doesn’t exist as a rock you can pick up off the earth’s surface. But because it is associated with batteries and called the “battery metal” makes it easy to see how people can make this mistake.
Many geologists around the world were contacted by news sources to respond to these videos and claims. None of them were buying the claims presented by non-experts in problematic videos.
The demonstration and rumors generated by the story are similar to bogus free energy or perpetual motion machines. Such claims abound but never stand up to testing. The use of the term “vibranium” was picked up by many legitimate news sources to frame the story in order to get more clicks. Social media is not a great place to get legitimate news. But even traditional news sources may jump in and hype misinformation. Don’t believe anything you see without following up by checking the facts.