Last year, scientists announced the discovery of two new minerals: elaliite and elkinstantonite. These were fascinating finds, perhaps even more so because they came from a 15-ton meteorite that had hurtled through space to crash down in Somalia.
While there are currently nearly 6,000 mineral species recognized by the International Mineralogical Association, Robert Hazen, a mineralogist at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory and George Mason University, says there are an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 minerals that exist right here on our own planet.
“Most of those minerals are going to be extremely rare, they’re going to be tiny,” he says. “Yet each of them tells us something about the past, about how planets work, about where life came from and who we are.”
Seaborgite, for example — a new mineral species announced in 2021 that claimed the title of “mineral of the year” — was found in Utah. It’s “transparent with vitreous luster and very pale-yellow streak,” exhibiting “bright lime-green fluorescence” under a laser, according to the researchers who first described it.
An Invaluable Commodity
Because they can be found all around us, humans have long depended on minerals for a whole variety of uses.
They currently make up vital components of the tech we depend on, for example, including the screen you’re using to read this. Our own bodies need them to stay healthy. We also covet precious minerals simply for their beauty or as objects of study.
Cobalt and lithium are essential parts of rechargeable batteries, for example. Phosphorus, derived from phosphate rock, is a fertilizer that fuels agriculture the world over, while copper finds its way into any number of electronics due to its conductivity. And if you’re rummaging around in your pocket for coins, there’s a good chance you’ll pick out one containing nickel.
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“I look around my office and I see all the different things — it's hard to identify a single thing that isn't derived, in one way or another, from minerals,” Hazen says. If minerals were to go, he continues, “your world would just vanish.”
As much as minerals have shaped us as a species, however, humans are also shaping minerals.
Hazen was part of a team that identified a group of minerals that occur “principally or exclusively as a consequence of human processes.” There are over 200 of these such mineral species thus far.
But our dependence on minerals comes with social and environmental costs. The mining of many of these minerals is wrapped up in issues such as child labor, abuses of workers’ rights, and the degradation and loss of natural ecosystems. The cobalt that drives our tech is just one example.
New frontiers of mineral availability — such as the ocean floor — offer other opportunities, but also come with great, possibly unforeseen risks of their own, say scientists. A spike in demand plus the crunch on availability of minerals vital to the transition to “green” technologies such as electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels nevertheless makes this prospect enticing for some.
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Amid soaring demand, there are warnings of lithium shortages, for example. Simply put, there is not an infinite number of lithium-rich deposits ideal for mining around the world … but that doesn’t mean we’re going to run out, says Hazen.
“We can mine them out and run out of lithium in that sense, but every cubic foot of seawater has lithium in it,” he says. “It just costs more money and more effort.” Estimates state that around 180 billion tons of lithium are found in the oceans.
In general, however, Hazen is of the view that the impulse to grab minerals wherever they exist should be approached with “extreme care and caution,” given the potential consequences.
“The minerals aren’t going anywhere,” he says. “They’ve been there for tens to maybe hundreds of thousands of years and, presumably, they’ll still be there millions of years in the future unless we decide to exploit them.”