A mineral is a naturally occurring, typically inorganic substance with a specific chemical composition and structure. An unknown mineral usually can be identified according to known characteristics of specific minerals in terms of certain parameters that include its appearance, its hardness, and the ways it breaks apart when fractured. Minerals are not to be confused with rocks, which are typically aggregates of minerals. There are some 3,700 varieties of mineral, a handful of which are abundant and wide-ranging in their application. Many more occur less frequently but are extremely important within a more limited field of uses.
The particulars of the mineral definition deserve some expansion, especially inasmuch as mineral has an everyday definition somewhat broader than its scientific definition. In everyday usage, minerals would be the natural, nonliving materials that make up rocks and are mined from the earth. According to this definition, minerals would include all metals, gemstones, clays, and ores. The scientific definition, on the other hand, is much narrower, as we shall see.
The fact that a mineral must be inorganic brings up another term that has a broader meaning in everyday life than in the world of science. At one time, the scientific definition of organic was more or less like the meaning assigned to it by nonscientists today, as describing all living or formerly living things, their parts, and substances that come from them. Today, however, chemists use the word organic to refer to any compound that contains carbon bonded to hydrogen, thus excluding carbonates (which are a type of mineral) and oxides such as carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. Because a mineral must be inorganic, this definition eliminates coal and peat, both of which come from a wide-ranging group of organic substances known as hydrocarbons.
A mineral also occurs naturally, meaning that even though there are artificial substances that might be described as "mineral-like," they are not minerals. In this sense, the definition of a mineral is even more restricted than that of an element, discussed later in this essay, even though there are nearly 4,000 minerals and more than 92 elements. The number 92, of course, is not arbitrary: that is the number of elements that occur in nature. But there are additional elements, numbering 20 at the end of the twentieth century, that have been created artificially.
The specific characteristics of minerals can be discussed both in physical and in chemical terms. From the standpoint of physics, which is concerned with matter, energy, and the interactions between the two, minerals would be described as crystalline solids. The definition of a mineral is narrowed further in terms of its chemistry, or its atomic characteristics, since a mineral must be of unvarying composition.
A mineral, then, must be solid under ordinary conditions of pressure and temperature. This excludes petroleum, for instance (which, in any case, would have been disqualified owing to its organic origins), as well as all other liquids and gases. Moreover, a mineral cannot be just any type of solid but must be a crystalline one—that is, a solid in which the constituent parts have a simple and definite geometric arrangement that is repeated in all directions. This rule, for instance, eliminates clay, an example of an amorphous solid.
Chemically, a mineral must be of unvarying composition, a stipulation that effectively limits minerals to elements and compounds. Neither sand nor glass, for instance, is a mineral, because the composition of both can vary. Another way of putting this is to say that all minerals must have a definite chemical formula, which is not true of sand, dirt, glass, or any other mixture. Let us now look a bit more deeply into the nature of elements and compounds, which are collectively known as pure substances, so as to understand the minerals that are a subset of this larger grouping.
The periodic table of elements is a chart that appears in most classrooms where any of the physical sciences are taught. It lists all elements in order of atomic number, or the number of protons (positively charged subatomic particles) in the atomic nucleus. The highest atomic number of any naturally occurring element is 92, for uranium, though it should be noted that a very few elements with an atomic number lower than 92 have never actually been found on Earth. On the other hand, all elements with an atomic number higher than 92 are artificial, created either in laboratories or as the result of atomic testing.
An element is a substance made of only one type of atom, meaning that it cannot be broken down chemically to create a simpler substance. In the sense that each is a fundamental building block in the chemistry of the universe, all elements are, as it were, "created equal." They are not equal, however, in terms of their abundance. The first two elements on the periodic table, hydrogen and helium, represent 99.9% of the matter in the entire universe. Though Earth contains little of either, our planet is only a tiny dot within the vastness of space; by contrast, stars such as our Sun are composed almost entirely of those elements (see Sun, Moon, and Earth).
Of all elements, oxygen is by far the most plentiful on Earth, representing nearly half—49.2%—of the total mass of atoms found on this planet. (Here the term mass refers to the known elemental mass of the planet's atmosphere, waters, and crust; below the crust, scientists can only speculate, though it is likely that much of Earth's interior consists of iron.)
Together with silicon (25.7%), oxygen accounts for almost exactly three-fourths of the elemental mass of Earth. If we add in aluminum (7.5%), iron (4.71%), calcium (3.39%), sodium (2.63%), potassium (2.4%), and magnesium (1.93%), these eight elements make up about 97.46% of Earth's material. Hydrogen, so plentiful in the universe at large, ranks ninth on Earth, accounting for only 0.87% of the planet's known elemental mass. Nine other elements account for a total of 2% of Earth's composition: titanium (0.58%), chlorine (0.19%), phosphorus (0.11%), manganese (0.09%), carbon (0.08%), sulfur (0.06%), barium (0.04%), nitrogen (0.03%), and fluorine (0.03%). The remaining 0.49% is made up of various other elements.
Looking only at Earth's crust, the numbers change somewhat, especially at the lower end of the list. Listed below are the 12 most abundant elements in the planet's crust, known to earth scientists simply as "the abundant elements." These 12, which make up 99.23% of the known crustal mass, together form approximately 40 different minerals that account for the vast majority of that 99.23%. Following the name and chemical symbol of each element is the percentage of the crustal mass it composes.
Abundance of Elements in Earth's Crust
As noted earlier, an element is identified by the number of protons in its nucleus, such that any atom with six protons must be carbon, since carbon has an atomic number of 6. The number of electrons, or negatively charged subatomic particles, is the same as the number of protons, giving an atom no net electric charge.
An atom may lose or gain electrons, however, in which case it becomes an ion, an atom or group of atoms with a net electric charge. An atom that has gained electrons, and thus has a negative charge, is called an anion. On the other hand, an atom that has lost electrons, thus becoming positive in charge, is a cation.
In addition to protons and electrons, an atom has neutrons, or neutrally charged particles, in its nucleus. Neutrons have a mass close to that of a proton, which is much larger than that of an electron, and thus the number of neutrons in an atom has a significant effect on its mass. Atoms that have the same number of protons (and therefore are of the same element), but differ in their number of neutrons, are called isotopes.
Whereas there are only a very few elements, there are millions of compounds, or substances made of more than one atom. A simple example is water, formed by the bonding of two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom; hence the chemical formula for water, which is H2O. Note that this is quite different from a mere mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, which would be something else entirely. Given the gaseous composition of the two elements, combined with the fact that both are extremely flammable, the result could hardly be more different from liquid water, which, of course, is used for putting out fires.
The difference between water and the hydrogen-oxygen mixture described is that whereas the latter is the result of mere physical mixing, water is created by chemical bonding. Chemical bonding is the joining, through electromagnetic attraction, of two or more atoms to create a compound. Of the three principal subatomic particles, only electrons are involved in chemical bonding—and only a small portion of those, known as valence electrons, which occupy the outer shell of an atom. Each element has a characteristic pattern of valence electrons, which determines the ways in which the atom bonds.
Noble gases, of which helium is an example, are noted for their lack of chemical reactivity, or their resistance to bonding. While studying these elements, the German chemist Richard Abegg (1869-1910) discovered that they all have eight valence electrons. His observation led to one of the most important principles of chemical bonding: atoms bond in such a way that they achieve the electron configuration of a noble gas. This concept, known as the octet rule, has been shown to be the case in most stable chemical compounds.
Abegg hypothesized that atoms combine with one another because they exchange electrons in such a way that both end up with eight valence electrons. This was an early model of ionic bonding, which results from attractions between ions with opposite electric charges: when they bond, these ions "complete" each other. Metals tend to form cations and bond with nonmetals that have formed anions. The bond between anions and cations is known as an ionic bond, and is extremely strong.
The other principal type of bond is a covalent bond. The result, once again, is eight valence electrons for each atom, but in this case, the nuclei of the two atoms share electrons. Neither atom "owns" them; rather, they share electrons. Today, chemists understand that most bonds are neither purely ionic nor purely covalent; instead, there is a wide range of hybrids between the two extremes, which are a function of the respective elements' electronegativity, or the relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons. If one element has a much higher electronegativity value than the other one, the bond will be purely ionic, but if two elements have equal electronegativity values, the bond is purely covalent. Most bonds, however, fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Chemical bonds exist between atoms and within a molecule. But there are also bonds between molecules, which affect the physical composition of a substance. The strength of intermolecular bonds is affected by the characteristics of the interatomic, or chemical, bond.
For example, the difference in electronegativity values between hydrogen and oxygen is great enough that the bond between them is not purely covalent, but instead is described as a polar covalent bond. Oxygen has a much higher electronegativity (3.5) than hydrogen (2.1), and therefore the electrons tend to gravitate toward the oxygen atom. As a result, water molecules have a strong negative charge on the side occupied by the oxygen atom, with a resulting positive charge on the hydrogen side.
By contrast, molecules of petroleum, a combination of carbon and hydrogen, tend to be nonpolar, because carbon (with an electronegativity value of 2.5) and hydrogen have very similar electronegativity values. Therefore the electric charges are more or less evenly distributed in the molecule. As a result, water molecules form strong attractions, known as dipole-dipole attractions, to each other. Molecules of petroleum, on the other hand, have little attraction to each other, and the differences in charge distribution account for the fact that water and oil do not mix.
Even weaker than the bonds between non-polar molecules, however, are those between highly reactive elements, such as the noble gases and the "noble metals"—gold, silver, and copper, which resist bonding with other elements. The type of intermolecular attraction that exists in such a situation is described by the term London dispersion forces, a reference to the German-born American physicist Fritz Wolfgang London (1900-1954).
The bonding between molecules of most other metals, however, is described by the electron sea model, which depicts metal atoms as floating in a "sea" of valence electrons. These valence electrons are highly mobile within the crystalline structure of the metal, and this mobility helps explain metals' high electric conductivity. The ease with which metal crystals allow themselves to be rearranged explains not only metals' ductility (their ability to be shaped) but also their ability to form alloys, a mixture containing two or more metals.
By definition, a solid is a type of matter whose particles resist attempts at compression. Because of their close proximity, solid particles are fixed in an orderly and definite pattern. Within the larger category of solids are crystalline solids, or those in which the constituent parts are arranged in a simple, definite geometric pattern that is repeated in all directions.
The term crystal is popularly associated with glass and with quartz, but only one of these is a crystalline solid. Quartz is a member of the silicates, a large group of minerals that we will discuss later in this essay. Glass, on the other hand, is an amorphous solid, meaning that its molecules are not arranged in an orderly pattern.
Elsewhere in this book (Earth, Science, and Nonscience and Planetary Science), there is considerable discussion of misconceptions originating with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Despite his many achievements, including significant contributions to the biological sciences, the great Greek philosopher spawned a number of erroneous concepts, which prevailed in the physical sciences until the dawn of the modern era. At least Aristotle made an attempt at scientific study, however; for instance, he dissected dead animals to observe their anatomic structures. His teacher, Plato (427?-347 B.C.), on the other hand, is hardly ever placed among the ranks of those who contributed, even ever so slightly, to progress in the sciences.
There is a reason for this. Plato, in contrast to his pupil, made virtually no attempt to draw his ideas about the universe from an actual study of it. Within Plato's worldview, the specific qualities of any item, including those in the physical world, reflected the existence of perfect and pure ideas that were more "real" than the physical objects themselves. Typical of his philosophy was his idea of the five Platonic solids, or "perfect" geometric shapes that, he claimed, formed the atomic substructure of the world.
The "perfection" of the Platonic solids lay in the fact that they are the only five three-dimensional objects in which the faces constitute a single type of polygon (a closed shape with three or more sides, all straight), while the vertices (edges) are all alike. These five are the tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron, composed of equilateral triangles (four, eight, and twenty, respectively); the cube, which, of course, is made of six squares; and the dodecahedron, made up of twelve pentagons. Plato associated the latter solid with the shape of atoms in outer space, while the other four corresponded to what the Greeks believed were the elements on Earth: fire (tetrahedron), earth (cube), air (octahedron), and water (icosahedron).
All of this, of course, is nonsense from the standpoint of science, though the Platonic solids are of interest within the realm of mathematics. Yet amazingly, Plato in his unscientific way actually touched on something close to the truth, as applied to the crystalline structure of minerals.
An isometric crystal system is the most symmetrical of all, with faces and angles that are most clearly uniform. Because of differing types of polygon that make up the faces, as well as differing numbers of vertices, these crystals appear in 15 forms, several of which are almost eerily reminiscent of Plato's solids: not just the cube (exemplified by halite crystals) but also the octahedron (typical of spinels) and even the dodecahedron (garnets).
Before the time of the great German mineralogist Georgius Agricola (1494-1555), attempts to classify minerals were almost entirely overshadowed by the mysticism of alchemy, by other nonscientific preoccupations, or by simple lack of knowledge. Agricola's De re metallica (On minerals, 1556), published after his death, constituted the first attempt at scientific mineralogy and mineral classification, but it would be two and a half centuries before the Swedish chemist Jöns Berzelius (1779-1848) developed the basics of the classification system used today.
Berzelius's classification system was refined later in the nineteenth century by the American mineralogist James Dwight Dana (1813-1895) and simplified by the American geologists Brian Mason (1917-) and L. G. Berry (1914-). In general terms, the classification system accepted by mineralogists today is as follows:
The first group, native elements, includes (among other things) metallic elements that appear in pure form somewhere on Earth: aluminum, cadmium, chromium, copper, gold, indium, iron, lead, mercury, nickel, platinum, silver, tellurium, tin, titanium, and zinc. This may seem like a great number of elements, but it is only a small portion of the 87 metallic elements listed on the periodic table.
The native elements also include certain metallic alloys, a fact that might seem strange for several reasons. First of all, an alloy is a mixture, not a compound, and, second, people tend to think of alloys as being man-made, not natural. The list of metallic alloys included among the native elements, however, is very small, and they meet certain very specific mineralogic criteria regarding consistency of composition.
The native elements class also includes native nonmetals such as carbon, in the form of graphite or its considerably more valuable alter ego, diamond, as well as elemental silicon (an extremely important building block for minerals, as we shall see) and sulfur. For a full list of native elements and an explanation of criteria for inclusion, as well as similar data for the other classes of mineral, the reader is encouraged to consult the Minerals by Name Web site, the address of which is provided in "Where to Learn More" at the end of this essay.
Most important ores (a rock or mineral possessing economic value)—copper, lead, and silver—belong to the sulfides class, as does a mineral that often has been mistaken for a precious metal—iron sulfide, or pyrite. Better known by the colloquial term fool's gold, pyrite has proved valuable primarily to con artists who passed it off as the genuine article. During World War II, however, pyrite deposits near Ducktown, Tennessee, became valuable owing to the content of sulfur, which was extracted for use in defense applications.
Whereas the sulfides fit the common notion of a mineral as a hard substance, halides, which are typically soft and transparent, do not. Yet they are indeed a class of minerals, and they include one of the best-known minerals on Earth: halite, known chemically as NaCl or sodium chloride—or, in everyday language, table salt.
Oxides, as their name suggests, are minerals containing oxygen; however, if all oxygen-containing minerals were lumped into just one group, that group would take up almost the entire list. For instance, under the present system, silicates account for the vast majority of minerals, but since those contain oxygen as well, a list that grouped all oxygen-based minerals together would consist of only four classes: native elements, sulfides, halides, and a swollen oxide category that would include 90% of all known minerals.
Instead, the oxides class is limited only to noncomplex minerals that contain either oxygen or hydroxide (OH). Examples of oxides include magnetite (iron oxide) and corundum (aluminum oxide.) It should be pointed out that a single chemical name, such as iron oxide or aluminum oxide, is not limited to a single mineral; for example, anatase and brookite are both titanium oxide, but they represent different combinations.
All the mineral classes discussed to this point, as well as several others to follow, are called nonsilicates, a term that stresses the importance of silicates among mineral classes.
Like the oxides, the carbonates, or carbon-based minerals, are a varied group. This class also contains a large number of minerals, making it the most extensive group aside from silicates and phosphates. Among these are limestones and dolostones, some of the most abundant rocks on Earth.
The phosphates, despite their name, may or may not include phosphorus; in some cases, arsenic, vanadium, or antimony may appear in its place. The same is true of the sulfates, which may or may not involve sulfur; some include chromium, tungsten, selenium, tellurium, or molybdenum instead.
In addition to the seven formal classes just described, there are two other somewhat questionable classes of nonsilicate that might be included in a listing of minerals. They would be included, if at all, only with major reservations, since they do not strictly fit the fourfold definition of a mineral as crystalline in structure, natural, inorganic, and identifiable by a precise chemical formula. These two questionable groups are organics and mineraloids.
Organics, as their name suggests, have organic components, but as we have observed, "organic" is not the same as "biological." This class excludes hard substances created in a biological setting—for example, bone or pearl—and includes only minerals that develop in a geologic setting yet have organic chemicals in their composition. By far the best-known example of this class, which includes only a half-dozen minerals, is amber, which is fossilized tree sap.
Amber is also among the mineraloids, which are not really "questionable" at all—they are clearly not minerals, since they do not have the necessary crystalline structure. Nevertheless, they often are listed among minerals in reference books and are likely to be sold by mineral dealers. The other four mineraloids include two other well-known substances, opal and obsidian.
Where minerals are concerned, the silicates are the "stars of the show": the most abundant and most widely used class of minerals. That being said, it should be pointed out that there are a handful of abundant nonsilicates, most notably the iron oxides hematite, magnetite, and goethite. A few other nonsilicates, while they are less abundant, are important to the makeup of Earth's crust, examples being the carbonates calcite and dolomite; the sulfides pyrite, sphalerite, galena, and chalcopyrite; and the sulfate gypsum. Yet the nonsilicates are not nearly as important as the class of minerals built around the element silicon.
Though it was discovered by Jöns Berzelius in 1823, owing to its abundance in the planet's minerals, silicon has been in use by humans for thousands of years. Indeed, silicon may have been one of the first elements formed in the Precambrian eons (see Geologic Time). Geologists believe that Earth once was composed primarily of molten iron, oxygen, silicon, and aluminum, which, of course, are still the predominant elements in the planet's crust. But because iron has a greater atomic mass, it settled toward the center, while the more lightweight elements rose to the surface. After oxygen, silicon is the most abundant of all elements on the planet, and compounds involving the two make up about 90% of the mass of Earth's crust.
On the periodic table, silicon lies just below carbon, with which it shares an ability to form long strings of atoms. Because of this and other chemical characteristics, silicon, like carbon, is at the center of a vast array of compounds—organic in the case of carbon and inorganic in the case of silicon. Silicates, which, as noted earlier, account for nine-tenths of the mass of Earth's crust (and 30% of all minerals), are to silicon and mineralogy what hydrocarbons are to carbon and organic chemistry.
Whereas carbon forms it most important compounds with hydrogen—hydrocarbons such as petroleum—the most important silicon-containing compounds are those formed by bonds with oxygen. There is silica (SiO2), for instance, commonly known as sand. Aside from its many applications on the beaches of the world, silica, when mixed with lime and soda (sodium carbonate) and other substances, makes glass. Like carbon, silicon has the ability to form polymers, or long, chainlike molecules. And whereas carbon polymers are built of hydrocarbons (plastics are an example), silicon polymers are made of silicon and oxygen in monomers, or strings of atoms, that form ribbons or sheets many millions of units long.
There are six subclasses of silicate, differentiated by structure. Nesosilicates include some the garnet group; gadolinite, which played a significant role in the isolation of the lanthanide series of elements during the nineteenth century; and zircon. The latter may seem to be associated with the cheap diamond simulant, or substitute, called cubic zirconium, or CZ. CZ, however, is an artificial "mineral," whereas zircon is the real thing—yet it, too, has been applied as a diamond simulant.
Just as silicon's close relative, carbon, can form sheets (this is the basic composition of graphite), so silicon can appear in sheets as the phyllosilicate subclass. Included among this group are minerals known for their softness: kaolinite, talc, and various types of mica. These are used in everything from countertops to talcum powder. The kaolinite derivative known as kaolin is applied, for instance, in the manufacture of porcelain, while some people in parts of Georgia, a state noted for its kaolinite deposits, claim that it can and should be chewed as an antacid stomach remedy. (One can even find little bags of kaolin sold for this purpose at convenience stores around Columbus in southern Georgia.)
Included in another subclass, the tectosilicates, are the feldspar and quartz groups, which are the two most abundant types of mineral in Earth's crust. Note that these are both groups: to a mineralogist, feldspar and quartz refer not to single minerals but to several within a larger grouping. Feldspar, whose name comes from the Swedish words for "field" and "mineral" (a reference to the fact that miners and farmers found the same rocks in their respective areas of labor), includes a number of varieties, such as albite (sodium aluminum silicate) or sanidine (potassium aluminum silicate).
Other, more obscure silicate subclasses include sorosilicates and inosilicates. Finally, there are cyclosilicates, such as beryl or beryllium aluminum silicate.
Mineralogists identify unknown minerals by judging them in terms of various physical properties, including hardness, color and streak, luster, cleavage and fracture, density and specific gravity, and other factors, such as crystal form. Hardness, or the ability of one mineral to scratch another, may be measured against the Mohs scale, introduced in 1812 by the German mineralogist Friedrich Mohs (1773-1839). The scale rates minerals from 1 to 10, with 10 being equivalent to the hardness of a diamond and 1 that of talc, the softest mineral. (See Economic Geology for other scales, some of which are more applicable to specific types of minerals.)
Minerals sometimes can be identified by color, but this property can be so affected by the presence of impurities that mineralogists rely instead on streak. The latter term refers to the color of the powder produced when one mineral is scratched by another, harder one. Another visual property is luster, or the appearance of a mineral when light reflects off its surface. Among the terms used in identifying luster are metallic, vitreous (glassy), and dull.
The term cleavage refers to the way in which a mineral breaks—that is, the planes across which the mineral splits into pieces. For instance, muscovite tends to cleave only in one direction, forming thin sheets, while halite cleaves in three directions, which are all perpendicular to one another, forming cubes. The cleavage of a mineral reveals its crystal system; however, minerals are more likely to fracture (break along something other than a flat surface) than they are to cleave.
Density is the ratio of mass to volume, and specific gravity is the ratio between the density of a particular substance and that of water. Specific gravity almost always is measured according to the metric system, because of the convenience: since the density of water is 1 g per cubic centimeter (g/cm3), the specific gravity of a substance is identical to its density, except that specific gravity involves no units.
For example, gold has a density of 19.3 g/cm3 and a specific gravity of 19.3. Its specific gravity, incidentally, is extremely high, and, indeed, one of the few metals that comes close is lead, which has a specific gravity of 11. By comparing specific gravity values and measuring the displacement of water when an object is set down in it, it is possible to determine whether an item purported to be gold actually is gold.
In addition to these more common parameters for identifying minerals, it may be possible to identify certain ones according to other specifics. There are minerals that exhibit fluorescent or phosphorescent characteristics, for instance. The first term refers to objects that glow when viewed under ultraviolet light, while the second term describes those that continue to glow after being exposed to visible light for a short period of time. Some minerals are magnetic, while others are radioactive.
Chemists long ago adopted a system for naming compounds so as to avoid the confusion of proliferating common names. The only compounds routinely referred to by their common names in the world of chemistry are water and ammonia; all others are known according to chemical nomenclature that is governed by specific rules. Thus, for instance, NaCl is never "salt," but "sodium chloride."
Geologists have not been able to develop such a consistent means of naming minerals. For one thing, as noted earlier, two minerals may be different from each other yet include the same elements. Furthermore, it is difficult (unlike the case of chemical compounds) to give minerals names that provide a great deal of information regarding their makeup. Instead, most minerals are simply named after people (usually scientists) or the locale in which they were found.
The physical properties of minerals, including many of the characteristics we have just discussed, have an enormous impact on their usefulness and commercial value. Some minerals, such as diamonds and corundum, are prized for their hardness, while others, ranging from marble to the "mineral" alabaster, are useful precisely because they are soft. Others, among them copper and gold, are not just soft but highly malleable, and this property makes them particularly useful in making products such as electrical wiring.
Diamonds, corundum, and other minerals valued for their hardness belong to a larger class of materials called abrasives. The latter includes sandpaper, which of course is made from one of the leading silicate derivatives, sand. Sandstone and quartz are abrasives, as are numerous variants of corundum, such as sapphire and garnets.
In 1891, American inventor Edward G. Acheson (1856-1931) created silicon carbide, later sold under the trade name Carborundum, by heating a mixture of clay and coke (almost pure carbon). For 50 years, Carborundum was the second-hardest substance known, diamonds being the hardest. Today other synthetic abrasives, made from aluminum oxide, boron carbide, and boron nitride, have supplanted Carborundum in importance.
Corundum, from the oxides class of mineral, can have numerous uses. Extremely hard, corundum, in the form of an unconsolidated rock commonly called emery, has been used as an abrasive since ancient times. Owing to its very high melting point—even higher than that of iron—corundum also is employed in making alumina, a fireproof product used in furnaces and fireplaces. Though pure corundum is colorless, when combined with trace amounts of certain elements, it can yield brilliant colors: hence, corundum with traces of chromium becomes a red ruby, while traces of iron, titanium, and other elements yield varieties of sapphire in yellow, green, and violet as well as the familiar blue.
This brings up an important point: many of the minerals named here are valued for much more than their abrasive qualities. Many of the 16 minerals used as gemstones, including corundum (source of both rubies and sapphires, as we have noted), garnet, quartz, and of course diamond, happen to be abrasives as well. (See Economic Geology for the full list of precious gems.)
Diamonds, in fact, are so greatly prized for their beauty and their application in jewelry that their role as "working" minerals—not just decorations—should be emphasized. The diamonds used in industry look quite different from the ones that appear in jewelry. Industrial diamonds are small, dark, and cloudy in appearance, and though they have the same chemical properties as gem-quality diamonds, they are cut with functionality (rather than beauty) in mind. A diamond is hard, but brittle: in other words, it can be broken, but it is very difficult to scratch or cut a diamond—except with another diamond.
On the other hand, the cutting of fine diamonds for jewelry is an art, exemplified in the alluring qualities of such famous gems as the jewels in the British Crown or the infamous Hope Diamond in Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution. Such diamonds—as well as the diamonds on an engagement ring—are cut to refract or bend light rays and to disperse the colors of visible light.
At the other end of the Mohs scale are an array of minerals valued not for their hardness, but for opposite qualities. Calcite, for example, is often used in cleansers because, unlike an abrasive (also used for cleaning in some situations), it will not scratch a surface to which it is applied. Calcite takes another significant form, that of marble, which is used in sculpture, flooring, and ornamentation because of its softness and ease in carving—not to mention its great beauty.
Gypsum, used in plaster of paris and wall-board, is another soft mineral with applications in building. Though, obviously, soft minerals are not much value as structural materials, when stud walls of wood provide the structural stability for gypsum sheet wall coverings, the softness of the latter can be an advantage. Gypsum wall-board makes it easy to put in tacks or nails for pictures and other decorations, or to cut out a hole for a new door, yet it is plenty sturdy if bumped. Furthermore, it is much less expensive than most materials, such as wood paneling, that might be used to cover interior walls.
Quite different sorts of minerals are valued not only for their softness but also their ductility or malleability. There is gold, for instance, the most ductile of all metals. A single troy ounce (31.1 g) can be hammered into a sheet just 0.00025 in. (0.00064 cm) thick, covering 68 sq. ft. (6.3 sq m), while a piece of gold weighing about as much as a raisin (0.0022 lb., or 1 g) can be pulled into the shape of a wire 1.5 mi. (2.4 km) long. This, along with its qualities as a conductor of heat and electricity, would give it a number of other applications, were it not for the high cost of gold.
Therefore, gold, if it were a person, would have to be content with being only the most prized and admired of all metallic minerals, an element for which men and whole armies have fought and sometimes died. Gold is one of the few metals that is not silver, gray, or white in appearance, and its beautifully distinctive color caught the eyes of metalsmiths and royalty from the beginning of civilization. Hence it was one of the first widely used metals.
Records from India dating back to 5000 B.C. suggest a familiarity with gold, and jewelry found in Egyptian tombs indicates the use of sophisticated techniques among the goldsmiths of Egypt as early as 2600 B.C. Likewise, the Bible mentions gold in several passages, and the Romans called it aurum ("shining dawn"), which explains its chemical symbol, Au.
Copper, gold, and silver are together known as coinage metals. They have all been used for making coins, a reflection not only of their attractiveness and malleability, but also of their resistance to oxidation. (Oxygen has a highly corrosive influence on metals, causing rust, tarnishing, and other effects normally associated with aging but in fact resulting from the reaction of metal and oxygen.) Of the three coinage metals, copper is by far the most versatile, widely used for electrical wiring and in making cookware. Due to the high conductivity of copper, a heated copper pan has a uniform temperature, but copper pots must be coated with tin because too much copper in food is toxic.
Its resistance to corrosion makes copper ideal for plumbing. Likewise, its use in making coins resulted from its anticorrosive qualities, combined with its beauty. These qualities led to the use of copper in decorative applications for which gold would have been much too expensive: many old buildings used copper roofs, and the Statue of Liberty is covered in 300 thick copper plates. As for why the statue and many old copper roofs are green rather than copper-colored, the reason is that copper does eventually corrode when exposed to air for long periods of time. It develops a thin layer of black copper oxide, and as the years pass, the reaction with carbon dioxide in the air leads to the formation of copper carbonate, which imparts a greenish color.
Unlike silver and gold, copper is still used as a coinage metal, though it, too, has been increasingly taken off the market for this purpose due to the high expense involved. Ironically, though most people think of pennies as containing copper, in fact the penny is the only American coin that contains no copper alloys. Because the amount of copper necessary to make a penny today costs more than one cent, a penny is actually made of zinc with a thin copper coating.
Whereas copper is useful because it conducts heat and electricity well, other minerals (e.g., kyanite, and alusite, muscovite, and silimanite) are valuable for their ability not to conduct heat or electricity. Muscovite is often used for insulation in electrical devices, though its many qualities make it a mineral prized for a number of reasons.
Its cleavage and lustrous appearance, combined with its transparency and almost complete lack of color, made it useful for glass in the windowpanes of homes owned by noblemen and other wealthy Europeans of the Middle Ages. Today, muscovite is the material in furnace and stove doors: like ordinary glass, it makes it possible for one to look inside without opening the door, but unlike glass, it is an excellent insulator. The glass-like quality of muscovite also makes it a popular material in wallpaper, where ground muscovite provides a glassy sheen.
In the same vein, asbestos—which may be made of chrysotile, crocidolite, or other minerals—has been prized for a number of qualities, including its flexibility and fiber-like cleavage. These factors, combined with its great heat resistance and its resistance to flame, have made it useful for fireproofing applications, as for instance in roofing materials, insulation for heating and electrical devices, brake linings, and suits for fire-fighters and others who must work around flames and great heat. However, information linking asbestos and certain forms of cancer, which began to circulate in the 1970s, led to a sharp decline in the asbestos industry.
All sorts of other properties give minerals value. Halite, or table salt, is an important—perhaps too important!—part of the American diet. Nor is it the only consumable mineral; people also take minerals in dietary supplements, which is appropriate since the human body itself contains numerous minerals. In addition to a very high proportion of carbon, the body also contains a significant amount of iron, a critical component in red blood cells, as well as smaller amounts of minerals such as zinc. Additionally, there are trace minerals, so called because only traces of them are present in the body, that include cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silicon, and vanadium.
One mineral that does not belong in the human body is lead, which has been linked with a number of health risks. The human body can only excrete very small quantities of lead a day, and this is particularly true of children. Even in small concentrations, lead can cause elevation of blood pressure, and higher concentrations can effect the central nervous system, resulting in decreased mental functioning, hearing damage, coma, and possibly even death.
The ancient Romans, however, did not know this, and used what they called plumbum in making water pipes. (The Latin word is the root of our own term plumber.) Many historians believe that plumbum in the Romans' water supply was one of the reasons behind the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
Even in the early twentieth century, people did not know about the hazards associated with lead, and therefore it was applied as an ingredient in paint. In addition, it was used in water pipes, and as an antiknock agent in gasolines. Increased awareness of the health hazards involved have led to a discontinuation of these practices.
Pencil "lead," on the other hand, is actually a mixture of clay with graphite, a form of carbon that is also useful as a dry lubricant because of its unusual cleavage. It is slippery because it is actually a series of atomic sheets, rather like a big, thick stack of carbon paper: if the stack is heavy, the sheets are likely to slide against one another.
Actually, people born after about 1980 may have little experience with carbon paper, which was gradually phased out as photocopiers became cheaper and more readily available. Today, carbon paper is most often encountered when signing a credit-card receipt: the signaturegoes through the graphite-based backing of thereceipt onto a customer copy.
In such a situation, one might notice that thecopied image of the signature looks as though itwere signed in pencil, which of course is fitting due to the application of graphite in pencil "lead." In ancient times, people did indeed uselead—which is part of the "carbon family" of elements, along with carbon and silicon—for writing, because it left gray marks on a surface. Eventoday, people still use the word "lead" in reference to pencils, much as they still refer to a galvanized steel roof with a zinc coating as a "tin roof."
(For more about minerals, see Rocks. The economic applications of both minerals and rocks are discussed in Economic Geology. In addition, Paleontology contains a discussion of fossilization, a process in which minerals eventually replace organic material in long-dead organisms.)
Atlas of Rocks, Minerals, and Textures (Web site). <http://www.geosci.unc.edu/Petunia/IgMetAtlas/mainmenu.html>.
Hurlbut, Cornelius, W. Edwin Sharp, and Edward Salisbury Dana. Dana's Minerals and How to Study Them. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.
The Mineral and Gemstone Kingdom: Minerals A-Z (Web site). <http://www.minerals.net/mineral/>.
Minerals and Metals: A World to Discover. Natural Resources Canada (Web site). <http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/mms/school/e_mine.htm>.
Minerals by Name (Web site). <http://mineral.galleries.com/minerals/by_name.htm>.
Pough, Frederick H. A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Roberts, Willard Lincoln, Thomas J. Campbell, and George Robert Rapp. Encyclopedia of Minerals. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.
Sorrell, Charles A., and George F. Sandström. A Field Guide and Introduction to the Geology and Chemistry of Rocks and Minerals. New York: St. Martin's, 2001.
Symes, R. F. Rocks and Minerals. Illus. Colin Keates and Andreas Einsiedel. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.
"USGS Minerals Statistics and Information." United States Geological Survey (Web site). <http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/>.
A mixture of two or more metals.
The negative ion that results when an atom or group of atoms gains one or more electrons.
The smallest particle of an element, consisting of protons, neutrons, and electrons. An atom can exist either alone or in combination with other atoms in a molecule.
The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. Since this number is different for each element, elements are listed on the periodic table in order of atomic number.
The positive ion that results when an atom or group of atoms loses one or more electrons.
The joining, through electromagnetic forces, of atoms representing different elements. The principal methods of combining are through covalent and ionic bonding, though few bonds are purely one or the other.
A term referring to the characteristic patterns by which a mineral breaks and specifically to the planes across which breaking occurs.
A substance made up of atoms of more than one element, chemically bonded to one another.
A type of chemical bonding in which two atoms share valence electrons.
The uppermost division of the solid earth, representing less than 1% of its volume and varying in depth from 3 mi. to 37 mi. (5-60 km).
A type of solid in which the constituent parts have a simple and definite geometric arrangement that is repeated in all directions.
A negatively charged particle in an atom, which spins around the nucleus.
The relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons.
A substance made up of only one kind of atom. Unlike compounds, elements cannot be broken chemically into other substances.
In mineralogy, the ability of one mineral to scratch another. This is measured by the Mohs scale.
Any chemical compound whose molecules are made up of nothing but carbon and hydrogen atoms.
An atom or group of atoms that has lost or gained one or more electrons and thus has a net electric charge. Positively charged ions are called cations, and negatively charged ones are called anions.
A form of chemical bonding that results from attractions between ions with opposite electric charges.
The appearance of a mineral when light reflects off its surface. Among the terms used in identifying luster aremetallic, vitreous (glassy), and dull.
A naturally occurring, typically inorganic substance with a specific chemical composition and a crystalline structure. Unknown minerals usually can be identified in terms of specific parameters, such as hardness or luster.
The study of minerals, which includes a number of smaller sub-disciplines, such as crystallography.
A substance with a variable composition, meaning that it is composed of molecules or atoms of differing types and in variable proportions.
A scale, introduced in 1812 by the German mineralogist Friedrich Mohs (1773-1839), that rates the hardness of minerals from 1 to 10. Ten is equivalent to the hardness of a diamond and 1 that of talc, an extremely soft mineral.
Small, individual subunits that join together to form polymers.
The center of an atom, a region where protons and neutrons are located and around which electrons spin.
A rock or mineral possessing economic value.
At one time, chemists used the term organic only in reference to living things. Now the word is applied to most compounds containing carbon and hydrogen, thus excluding carbonates (which are minerals) and oxides such as carbon dioxide.
A chart that shows the elements arranged in order of atomic number, along with the chemical symbol and the average atomic mass for that particular element.
Large, typically chainlike molecules composed of numerous smaller, repeating units known as monomers.
A positively charged particle in an atom.
A substance, whether an element or compound, that has the same chemical composition throughout. Compare with mixture.
A term referring to the ability of one element to bond with others. The higher the reactivity (and, hence, the electro negativity value), the greater the tendency to bond.
An aggregate of minerals.
The ratio between the density of a particular substance and that of water.
The color of the powder produced when one mineral is scratched byanother, harder one.
Electrons that occupy the highest principal energy level in an atom. These are the electrons involved in chemical bonding.