Salt plain

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 flew through space to crash into Somalia.

While there are currently nearly 6,000 types of minerals recognized by International Mineralogical AssociationRobert Hazen, mineralogist at Carnegie Institution Geophysical Laboratory and George Mason University, says there are about 9,000 to 10,000 minerals that exist right here on our planet.

“Most of these minerals will be extremely rare, they will be tiny,” he says. “Yet each of them tells us something about the past, about how the planets work, about where life comes from and who we are.”

Cyborgitefor example — a new mineral species announced in 2021 that claims the title “mineral of the year” — was discovered in Utah. It is “transparent with a vitreous luster and very pale yellow streaks,” exhibiting “bright lime-green fluorescence” under a laser, according to researchers who first describe it.

A priceless commodity

Because they can be found all around us, humans have long depended on minerals for a variety of uses.

They are getting along now vital components of the technology we depend on, for example, including screen use to read this. Our own bodies need them to stay healthy. We also long for precious minerals simply for their beauty or as objects of study.

Cobalt and lithium are main parts of rechargeable batteries, for example. Phosphorus, derived from phosphate rock, is a fertilizer that fuels agriculture around the world, while copper finds its place in every number of electronics due to its conductivity. And if you dig in your pocket for coins, there’s a good chance you’ll pick one that does nickel.

Read more: Want to understand how lithium-ion batteries work? Play a game of Jenga

“I look around my office and see all the different things—it’s hard to identify a single thing that isn’t derived from minerals in one way or another,” says Hazen. If the minerals disappear, he continues, “your world will just disappear.”

Human influence

As much as minerals have shaped us as a species, however, humans also shape minerals.

Hazen was part of a team that identify a group of minerals which arise “mainly or exclusively as a consequence of human processes”. So far, there are over 200 of these mineral species.

But our dependence on minerals comes with social and environmental costs. The extraction of many of these minerals is shrouded in issues such as child labor, abuse of workers’ rights, and the degradation and loss of natural ecosystems. The cobalt that drives our technology is simple one example.

New frontiers of mineral availability – such as the ocean floor – offer other opportunities, but also come with large, possibly unforeseen risks of their own. say the scientists. A surge in demand plus a crisis in the availability of minerals vital to the transition to “green” technologies such as electric carswind turbines and solar panels still does that a tempting prospect for some.

Read more: US wind power is (finally) venturing offshore

Thinking Twice

Against the backdrop of growing demand, there are lithium shortage warnings, for example. Simply put, there aren’t an infinite number of lithium-rich deposits perfect for mining around the world… but that doesn’t mean we’ll run out, Hazen says.

“We can extract them and run out of lithium in that sense, but there’s lithium in every cubic foot of seawater,” he says. “It just costs more money and more effort.” Estimates suggest that approx 180 billion tons of lithium are found in the oceans.

Overall, however, Hazen believes that the impulse to grab minerals wherever they exist should be approached with “extreme care and caution” given the potential consequences.

“Minerals aren’t going anywhere,” he says. “They’ve been there for tens to maybe hundreds of thousands of years, and will probably still be there millions of years into the future unless we decide to exploit them.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *