Planet Earth

3.4 Minerals

Atoms and Isotopes

A chemical element is a substance that cannot be made into a more straightforward form by ordinary chemical means. The smallest unit of a chemical element is an atom. An atom has all the properties of that element. A nucleus comprises subatomic particles called protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. Protons have a positive electrical charge. The number of protons in the nucleus determines what element the atom is. Neutrons are about the size of protons but have no electrical charge. Each having a negative electrical charge, electrons orbit the nucleus at varying energy levels in a region known as the electron cloud.

Because electrons are minuscule compared with protons and neutrons, the number of protons plus neutrons gives the atom its atomic mass. All atoms of a given element always have the same number of protons but may differ in the number of neutrons found in its nucleus. Atoms of an element with varying numbers of neutrons are called isotopes. (Matter Matters | Earth Science, n.d.)

Ions and Molecules

Atoms are stable when they have an entire outermost electron valence shell. An atom will give, take, or share electrons to fill its outer shell. When an atom either gains or loses electrons, this creates an ion. Ions have either a positive or a negative electrical charge. What is the charge of an ion if the atom loses an electron? An atom with the same number of protons and electrons has no overall charge, so if it loses the negatively charged electron, it has a positive control. What is the charge of an ion if the atom gains an electron? If the atom gains an electron, it has a negative charge.

When atoms chemically bond, they form compounds. The smallest unit of a compound is a molecule. When two or more atoms share electrons to form a chemical bond, they form a molecule. The molecular mass is the sum of the masses of all the atoms in the molecule.

Chemical Bonding

Ions combine to create a molecule to balance electrical charges; the positive charges balance the negative charges, and the molecule has no electrical charge. An atom will balance its electrical charge by sharing an electron with another atom, giving it away, or receiving an electron from another.

The joining of ions to make molecules is chemical bonding. There are three main types of chemical bonds. Ionic bonds occur when electrons are transferred between atoms. Covalent bonds occur when an atom shares electrons with another atom. The sharing of electrons is not always evenly distributed within a molecule. If one atom has electrons more often than another atom in the molecule, it has a positive and a negative side. It is a polar molecule because it acts a little bit like the polarity of a magnet. Finally, hydrogen bonds are weak intermolecular bonds that form when the positive side of one polar molecule is attracted to another polar molecule’s negative side.


Minerals are categorized based on their chemical composition. Due to composition similarities, minerals within the same group may have similar characteristics. Therefore, geologists have a precise definition of minerals. A material is characterized as a mineral if it meets all the following traits:

  • Inorganic, crystalline solid.
  • It is formed through natural processes and has a definite chemical composition.
  • They are identified by their characteristic physical properties, such as crystalline structure, hardness, density, flammability, and color.

Crystalline Solid

Minerals are crystalline solids. A crystal is a solid in which the atoms are arranged in a regular, repeating pattern. The pattern of particles in different samples of the same mineral is the same. Is glass a mineral? Without a crystalline structure, even natural glass is not a mineral. (Minerals and Mineral Groups | Earth Science, n.d.)

Organic and Inorganic Substances

Organic substances are carbon-based compounds made by living creatures, including proteins, carbohydrates, and oils. Inorganic substances have a structure that is not characteristic of living bodies. For example, coal is made of plant and animal remains. Is it a mineral? Coal is classified as a sedimentary rock but is not a mineral. (Minerals and Mineral Groups | Earth Science, n.d.)

Natural Processes

Minerals are made by natural processes that occur on or on Earth. A diamond created deep in Earth’s crust is a mineral. Is a diamond created in a laboratory by placing carbon under high pressure a mineral? No. Do not buy a laboratory-made “diamond” for jewelry without realizing it is not technically a mineral.

Chemical Composition

Most of the Earth’s crust comprises only eight elements – oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium – which comprise most minerals.

All minerals have a specific chemical composition. For example, silver comprises only silver atoms, diamonds are made up of only carbon atoms, and most minerals are made up of chemical compounds. Each mineral has its chemical formula. For example, halite is NaCl (sodium chloride). Quartz is always made of two oxygen atoms bonded to a silicon atom, SiO2. If a mineral contains other elements in its crystal structure, it is not quartz. (Minerals and Mineral Groups | Earth Science, n.d.)

Mineral Identification

Their physical characteristics can identify minerals. The physical properties of minerals are related to their chemical composition and bonding. Some characteristics, such as a mineral’s hardness, are more useful for mineral identification. Color is readily observable and undoubtedly visible but is usually less reliable than other physical properties. (Reading: Physical Characteristics of Minerals | Geology, n.d.)


Diamonds are popular gemstones because they reflect light, making them very sparkly. Turquoise is prized for its striking greenish-blue color. Notice that specific terms are being used to describe the appearance of minerals. Color is rarely helpful for identifying a mineral.


A streak is the color of a mineral’s powder. Streak is a more reliable property than color because streak does not vary. Minerals that are the same color may have a different colored streak. Many minerals, such as quartz, do not have a streak. To check the streak, scrape the mineral across an unglazed porcelain plate. Yellow-gold pyrite has a blackish streak, another indicator that pyrite is not gold, with a golden yellow streak.


Luster describes the reflection of light off a mineral’s surface. Mineralogists have specific terms to describe luster. One straightforward way to classify luster is whether the mineral is metallic or non-metallic. Opaque and shiny minerals, such as pyrite, have a metallic luster. Minerals such as quartz have a non-metallic luster.

Specific Gravity

Density describes how much matter is in a particular space: density = mass/volume. Mass is a measure of the amount of matter in an object. Its volume describes the amount of space an object takes up. The density of an object depends on its mass and its importance. For example, the water in a drinking glass has the same density as the water in the same volume of a swimming pool. The specific gravity of a substance compares its density to that of water. Denser substances have higher specific gravity.


Hardness is a measure of whether a mineral will scratch or be scratched. Mohs Hardness Scale is a reference for mineral hardness. Anyone can evaluate an unknown mineral for its hardness with a Mohs scale. For example, imagine you have an unknown mineral. It can scratch fluorite or even apatite, but feldspar scratches it. This mineral examination informs you that the mineral’s hardness is between 5 and 6. Note that no other mineral can scratch a diamond. This is because breaking a mineral breaks its chemical bonds. Since some bonds are weaker than others, each type of mineral will likely break where the bonds between the atoms are weakest. For that reason, minerals break apart in distinctive ways. (Mineral Identification | Earth Science, n.d.)


Cleavage is the tendency of a mineral to break along specific planes to make smooth surfaces. For example, halite breaks between layers of sodium and chlorine to form cubes with smooth surfaces. Gemstones are beautiful because the cleavage planes make an attractive crystal shape with smooth faces. (Mineral Identification | Earth Science, n.d.)


A fracture is a break in a mineral, not along a cleavage plane. Fracture is not always the same in the same mineral because its structure does not determine fracture. Minerals may have natural fractures. Metals usually fracture into jagged edges. If a mineral splinter is like wood, it may be fibrous. Some minerals, such as quartz, form smooth curved surfaces when they fracture. (Reading: Physical Characteristics of Minerals | Geology, n.d.)

Other Identifying Characteristics

Mineral Formation

Minerals form under an enormous range of geologic conditions. There are more ways to form minerals than types of minerals themselves. Minerals can form from volcanic gases, sediment formation, oxidation, magma crystallization, or saline fluid deposition. (Reading: Physical Characteristics of Minerals | Geology, n.d.)

Formation from Hot Material

A rock is a collection of minerals. Imagine a rock that becomes so hot it melts. Many minerals start in liquids that are hot enough to melt rocks. Magma is melted rock inside Earth, a molten mixture of substances that can be hotter than 1,000oC. Magma cools slowly inside Earth, which gives mineral crystals time to grow large enough to be seen clearly. When magma erupts onto Earth’s surface, it is called lava. Lava cools much more rapidly than magma when it is below the surface. Mineral crystals are exceedingly small and do not have time to form in cooling lava. The chemical composition will be the same as if the magma cooled slowly. Existing rocks may be heated enough to release the molecules from their structure and move around. The molecules may match up with different molecules to form new minerals as the rock cools, a process called metamorphism. (Matter Matters | Earth Science, n.d.)

Formation from Solutions

Water on Earth,  such as ocean water, contains chemical elements mixed into a solution. Various processes can cause these elements to combine to form solid mineral deposits.

Minerals from Salt Water

When water evaporates,  it leaves behind a solid residue of minerals. Water can only hold a certain amount of dissolved minerals and salts. When the amount is too vast to stay dissolved in the water, the particles come together to form mineral solids, which sink. Halite readily precipitates out of the water, as does calcite. Some lakes, such as Mono Lake in California or The Great Salt Lake in Utah, contain many mineral precipitates.

Minerals from Hot Underground Water

Magma heats nearby underground water, which reacts with the rocks around it to pick up dissolved particles. As the water flows through open spaces in the rock and cools, it deposits solid minerals. Mineral deposits form when a mineral fills cracks in rocks. They are called veins when minerals are deposited in open spaces and large crystals form.

Mining and Mineral Use

Some minerals are beneficial. An ore is a rock that contains minerals with valuable elements. For example, aluminum in bauxite ore is extracted from the ground and refined in aluminum foil and other products. The cost of creating a product from a mineral depends on how abundant the mineral is and how much the extraction and refining processes cost. In addition, environmental damage from these processes is often not figured into a product’s cost. Therefore, it is crucial to use mineral resources wisely.

Finding and Mining Minerals

Geologic processes create and concentrate minerals that are valuable natural resources. Geologists study geological formations and test soil and rocks’ physical and chemical properties to locate possible ores and determine their size and concentration. A mineral deposit will only be mined if it is profitable. A concentration of minerals is only called an ore deposit if it is profitable. There are many ways to mine ores. (Reading: Mining and Mineral Use | Geology, n.d.)

Surface mining allows the extraction of ores close to the Earth’s surface. Overlying rock is blasted, and the rock that contains the valuable minerals is placed in a truck and taken to a refinery. Surface mining includes open-pit mining and mountaintop removal. Other surface mining methods include strip mining, placer mining, and dredging. Strip mining is like open-pit mining but with material removed along a strip.

Placers are valuable minerals found in stream gravels. California’s nickname, the Golden State, can be traced to discovering placer deposits of gold in 1848. The gold weathered out of hard metamorphic rock in the western Sierra Nevada, containing deposits of copper, lead, zinc, silver, chromite, and other valuable minerals. The gold traveled down rivers and then settled in gravel deposits. Currently, California has active mines for gold and silver and non-metal minerals such as sand and gravel used for construction. (Reading: Mining and Mineral Use | Geology, n.d.)

Bingham Copper Mine” by David Guthrie is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Underground mining is used to recover ores deeper into Earth’s surface. Miners blast and tunnel into the rock to gain access to the ores. How underground mining approaches depends on the placement of the ore body, its depth, concentration of ore, and the surrounding rock’s strength. Underground mining is costly and dangerous. Fresh air and lights must also be brought into the tunnels for the miners, and accidents are far too frequent.

The ore’s journey to becoming a usable material only begins when the ore leaves the mine. First, rocks are crushed to separate the valuable minerals from the waste rock. Then, the minerals are separated from the ore. A few methods for extracting ore are:

  • Heap leaching: adding chemicals, such as cyanide or acid, to remove ore.
  • Flotation: adding a compound that attaches to the valuable mineral and floats.
  • Smelting: roasting rock, causing it to segregate into layers so the mineral can be extracted.

The rock is melted at a temperature higher than 900 degrees Celsius to extract the metal from the ore, which requires much energy. Extracting metal from the rock is so energy-intensive that recycling just 40 aluminum cans will save the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. (Mining and Mineral Use | Earth Science, n.d.)

Although mining provides people with many necessary resources, environmental costs can be high. Surface mining clears the landscape of trees and soil, and nearby streams and lakes are inundated with sediment. Pollutants from the mined rock, such as heavy metals, enter the sediment and water system. In addition, acids flow from some mine sites, changing the composition of nearby waterways.

U.S. law has changed so that a mine region must be restored to its natural state in recent decades, a process called reclamation. This is not true of older mines. Pits may be refilled or reshaped, and vegetation may be planted. Pits may be allowed to fill with water and become lakes or turned into landfills. Underground mines may be sealed off or left open as homes for bats.

Some minerals are valuable because they are beautiful. Jade has been used for thousands of years in China. Diamonds sparkle on many engagement rings. Minerals like jade, turquoise, diamonds, and emeralds are gemstones. A gemstone, or gem, is a cut and polished material for jewelry. Gemstones are usually rare and do not break or scratch easily. Most are cut along cleavage faces and then polished so that light bounces back off the cleavage planes. Light does not pass through opaque gemstones, such as turquoise. Gemstones are not just used in jewelry. Diamonds are used to cut and polish other materials, such as glass and metals, because they are so complex. The mineral corundum, of which ruby and sapphire are varieties, is used in sandpaper products.

Minerals are used in much less obvious places. For example, the mineral gypsum is used for the sheetrock in homes. Window glass is made from sand, which is mostly quartz. Halite is mined for rock salt. Copper is used in electrical wiring, and bauxite is the source of aluminum used in soda cans. (Reading: Mining and Mineral Use | Geology, n.d.)

Conflict Resouces

Blood Diamonds

Blood diamonds, also called conflict diamonds, are mined in conflict areas and sold to finance warlords or invade armies in a geographic region. The term “blood” diamonds highlights the negative impacts and consequences of diamonds mined for these ends. Often, women and children are enslaved to mine blood diamonds and other conflict resources to fund these local and regional wars. The Kimberley Process was created to help combat and regulate the flow of diamonds mined worldwide to ensure that people were not purchasing blood diamonds. Blood diamonds have been mined from Angola, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau.


A new form of conflict minerals has developed in recent years. With the advancement of technology (i.e., laptops, smartphones, tablets), the need and demand for the mineral cobalt have proliferated. Subsaharan Africa, specifically Central Africa, is believed to have roughly two-thirds of the world’s cobalt. Women and children have been imprisoned to extract cobalt from the mines to meet the demand. There is no formalized process to track and monitor where cobalt comes from. Technology companies like Apple, Samsung, Dell, and others want to create a cobalt supply chain to monitor its origin.


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Physical Geography and Natural Disasters Copyright © 2020 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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