Minerals - Real-life applications


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:

  • Class 1: Native elements
  • Class 2: Sulfides
  • Class 3: Oxides and hydroxides
  • Class 4: Halides
  • Class 5: Carbonates, nitrates, borates, iodates
  • Class 6: Sulfates, chromates, molybdates, tungstates
  • Class 7: Phosphates, arsenates, vanadates
  • Class 8: Silicates


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 (SiO 2 ), 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.)

CALCITE WITH QUARTZ. (© Mark A. Schneider/Photo Researchers. Reproduced by permission.)
© Mark A. Schneider/Photo Researchers
. Reproduced by permission. )

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/cm 3 ), 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/cm 3 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&# 003e; .

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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/> .