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What is a mineral?

What is a mineral? These are the characteristics of minerals followed by a brief

explanation of each characteristic.
A mineral:

Is naturally occurring

Is a solid

Is inorganic (mostly)

Has a fixed chemical formula

Has an orderly crystalline structure

Lets look at these one at a time.

Naturally Occurring
To be considered a mineral it must have been formed by natural geologic processes.
Laboratory created gems (synthetic diamonds, rubies, etc.) dont count.
A Solid
By definition, minerals are solid within the normal temperature ranges of the earths
Generally, a mineral is a naturally occurring solid with a crystalline structure.
This is where it gets a little tricky.
Halite or table salt is a mineral. Sugar is a crystalline solid but comes from plants,
sugar cane or sugar beets. This classifies it as an organic compound and so is not a
mineral. Coal on the other hand also comes from plants (organic) and is generally
considered a mineral.

There are also marine animals that make their shells from calcite (calcium carbonate).
Calcite is a mineral but since it is secreted by animals to form shells it is inorganic.
Geologists generally consider this inorganic calcite a mineral.
What is a mineral? It has a fixed chemical formula
Each mineral has a particular chemical make up. While most minerals are compounds of
two or more elements, some minerals are made up of a single element. Gold, silver and
copper are called native elements and occur in nature in relatively pure form.

The vast majority of minerals are compounds or mixtures of elements. These mixtures
are consistent. For halite, the chemical formula is NaCl or sodium chloride. Each sodium
atom is combined with one chlorine atom. The formula for Quartz is SiO2, silicon oxide.
For every atom of silicone, there are two atoms of oxygen.
There are about 4000 known minerals on earth. Each one is a unique substance with its
own chemical formula. Most of these are very rare.
That narrows down the field quite a bit.

There are only eight groups of minerals that are common. They are:

Native Elements
Native Elements is the category of the pure. Most minerals are made up of
combinations of chemical elements. In this group a single element like the copper
shown here are found in a naturally pure form. It is often the metals seen in this
category but semimetals like bismuth, arsenic, and antimony are also in the
ranks as are nonmetals like sulfur and carbon (as graphite and diamond).

The sulfides are made up of sulfur combined with another mineral, usually a
metal. Many of the worlds primary metal ores belong to this group. The chart
below lists some of these metal ores and the metal that is produced from them.

Sulfide Ores and Their Metals

Cinnabar - This bright red mineral crystallizes around hot springs or
hydrothermal veins. It contains up to 85% mercury and is the worlds primary
source of the element.


Galena is a coumpound of sulfur and lead. It contains about 10% lead.


Calcocite is the richest of copper ores containing about 80% copper. It is a

rare mineral and most of the known deposits have been mined out.
Todaychalcopyrite another sulfide is the primary ore of copper. Though it
contains a smaller percentage of copper it is widely distributed.




Cinna Galen
This group of minerals tend to be dense, brittle, and metallic in appearance.
Sulfosalts are compounds of sulfur with semimetals like arsenic, bismuth, and
antimony. There are two other notable groups of this class that do not contain
sulfur! They are the tellurides and the arsenides. In these minerals tellurium and
arsenic take the place of sulfur in the chemical structure. They are so similar to
the sulfides that they are classed with them.



Oxides are mineral compounds combining a metal with

oxygen or a metal combining with oxygen and hydrogen. This
is a large group of minerals that occur in most geological
environments and rock types. They span a wide range of
characteristics from common metal ores to
precious gems. Hematite, is an iron ore that
belongs to this class of minerals as is cassiterite a
tin ore. At the other end of the spectrum are the
corundums. Corundum is one of the hardest
minerals and produces both rubies and

Rutile is an oxide that is used to produce

titanium. It is both stronger and lighter than steel. Because of this it is used
to make missiles and aircraft.


Carbonates come from the combination of carbon, oxygen, and a metal or
semimetal element. This group of minerals is soft and easily dissolved by even
mild acids. Some of these minerals form by the acidic action of air and rain.

Carbonate Minerals




This is a common mineral

with many forms. Pictured
above is Iceland spar. This
clear calcite is also known as
optical calcite. It is valued
for its unique light refracting

Malichite is a copper
carbonate mineral. It
usually form as a tarnish on
copper ore. It is valued for
its rich green color and is
used in jewelry and

Rhodochrosite is a
manganese carbonate
mineral. In its purest form it
is a transparent rose red,
but this is fairly rare. It can
also be formed in


Phosphate Minerals




The sulfates are made up of one or more metals in combination with sulfur and
oxygen. This class of minerals tends to be evaporates or forms from volcanically
heated water. As a group they are soft and pale in color and sometimes
transparent or translucent.
There are many minerals in the sulfate group but most are rare in occurrence.
Anhydrate, barite, and gypsum are minerals that are common in this class.

Sulfate Minerals




Halides are formed by combining a metal with one of the five halogen elements,
chlorine, bromine, fluorine, iodine, and astatine. Many of these compounds will
dissolve in water. Because of this solubility they usually occur only under special
conditions. Halite (NaCl) or rock salt is an exception to this notion. It is so
common that it is found in huge deposits all over the world. It is a mineral that
has many uses including making table salt.

Fluorite CaF2 or calcium fluoride is another common halide mineral. The

primary use of fluorite is in the making of steel and aluminum. It serves as a flux
making the molten metal flow more easily. Fluorite is a popular specimen mineral
for collectors. It comes in nearly every color of the rainbow, sometimes several
colors in the same piece creating a striking appearance.

Sylvite is similar to halite in that is that there are huge beds deposited by
ancient seas. Because it contains potassium sylvite is used as a fertilizer.


Silicates are the most widespread of the minerals. They are made up of oxygen and
silicon the number one and number two most abundant elements in the earth's crust.
By themselves they make up over 90% of the weight of the earths crust. Most rocks are
composed mainly of this class of minerals.
There are two forms of silicate when looking at their chemistry:

felsic-The fel stands for feldspar while the sic represents silica. They form in
granites and are lighter in weight and color than other silicates because they
have less iron and magnesium. Quartz, micas, and the K-feldspars are noteable
members of this group.

mafic- Ma stands for magnesium and fic is for iron (ferric). This group of silicates
usually form in magmas moving up to fill the gap left when tectonic plates are
moving away from each other in the sea floor. Basalt and gabbro are of this type.
Olivine and pyroxene are also in this group. They are relatively dense and dark
They are called ultra mafic. Plagioclase feldspars are mafic silicates that have
calcium and sodium as part of their chemical composition.

A more modern approach to classifying silicates is by their structure. This class of

minerals uses SiO4 molecules connected as tetrahedrons. A tetrahedron is a triangular
based pyramid. The oxygen atoms occupy the corners of the tetrahedron with the
silicon atom in the center.The arrangement of this basic shape is the basis for
classification. There are six subclasses. They are:

Nesosilicates (single tetrahedrons)







Sorosilicates (double tetrahedrons)




Inosilicates (single and double chains)

Single chain



Double chain


Cyclosilicates (rings)



Phyllosilicates (sheets)





Tectosilicates (frameworks)


feldspars- labradorite, microcline, amazonite

How many of these can you pick out of the chart below?

Silicate Minerals
Felsic Silicate Minerals




Mica is a metamorphic
Quartz is one of the most
Amazonite is a beautiful
mineral. The many variations
common of all minerals that green variety of microcline
come from the diverse ways
make up the continental
feldspar. Its chemical
it formed. Mica formations
crust. It is found in igneous,
formula is KAlSi3O8 ,
are associated with
metamorphic, and
potassium aluminum
volcanoes and hydrothermal
sedimentary rocks.

Mafic Silicate Minerals




What is a mineral? It Has an orderly crystalline structure

Minerals have an orderly crystalline structure. This means that the atoms or ions that
make up a mineral are arranged in an orderly and repetitive manner.