Monday, October 12, 2015, marks this year’s Columbus Day, which has seen its share of controversy. Many adults who grew up in the United States were taught that this holiday commemorated the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492, and the discovery of the ‘New World.’ (You can read about the holiday origins on this Library of Congress page.) Smithsonian.com reports that many people believe that indigenous people suffered when Columbus arrived in America so the native people should be celebrated; others think the day should honor the legacy of the ancestors who immigrated, overcame poverty, language barriers, and discrimination. While some people have argued that the discovery is a myth, others wonder if Columbus Day should become “Exploration Day” to honor all explorations.
We will mark Columbus Day by celebrating the mining explorers and the discovery of minerals. According to Legends of America, the hope of finding mineral treasure was one of the incentives that led the early colonists to America, and many states in the American West were originally settled primarily by prospectors and miners. Discoveries in mining are not limited to history, however. There have been recent discoveries of minerals all over the world.
- Last November, while digging around an ancient meteorite impact crater in Wisconsin, researchers discovered an extremely rare mineral called reidite, a dense form (polymorph) of the fairly tough gemstone zircon, which is produced when the latter is subjected to very high pressures. While researchers can form this mineral in the laboratory, naturally occurring reidite is scarce.
- Putnisite is a new translucent mineral with a pink streak and vitreous luster that was discovered in Australia in April 2014. Putnisite occurs as isolated pseudocubic crystals, up to 0.5 mm in diameter, and is associated with quartz and a near amorphous Cr silicate.
- In 2011 it was reported that a team of scientists discovered a new mineral called krotite, which is believe to be one of the earliest minerals formed in our solar system.
- The discovery of a mineral species new to science from New York State was announced by the International Mineral Association (IMA). The species was named parvo-mangano-edenite and it belongs to the amphibole group of minerals.
- NASA’s Curiosity rover hit a ‘Martian Mineral Jackpot’ in March when it found two-tone mineral veins protruding from the surrounding rock, giving insight into Mars’ geological history.
New mineral discoveries happen more often than one would think. The International Mineralogical Association publishes a list of “recent new minerals’ every month.
Technologies Aid Mineral Discovery
It helps to use the latest technologies when studying minerals, old or new. Here are a few ways technologies are being used in the mineral discovery process.
- Mining samples (including minerals) are easily analyzed using a portable XRF analyzer. Watch this video to see a handheld instrument provide instant elemental analysis across all stages of mining and exploration in the field, including ore exploration, elemental analysis, geology sample identification, grassroot exploration, and mineral processing. Field-portable x-ray fluorescence is also emerging as an important enabling tool in E&P exploration operations because it provides valuable information about the mineral composition of the rock and whether or not it has properties favorable to oil and gas production – in real time for instant decision making.
- Lab-based XRF is a complimentary technique for evaluating prepared mineral samples for quality control and to determine their suitability for specific applications. (Industrial minerals are used, either in processed or natural state, to make building materials, paint, ceramics, glass, plastics, paper, electronics, detergents, medications and medical devices, and many more industrial and domestic products. See more here.)
- Geologists, geophysicists and environmental engineers turn to electron microscopy and electron microprobe analysis to understand the microstructure and chemical composition of geological samples. A key technology that provides elemental analysis of microstructures is X-ray microanalysis. Energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) is ideal for sample surveys and compositional mapping, while wavelength dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (WDS) provides excellent spectral resolution for measuring the L- and M-lines of heavier elements critical to good geological analysis.
- Geologists frequently use scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and X-ray microanalysis to study the elemental compositions of the minerals in metamorphic rocks to learn more about temperatures and pressures that occur at great depths within the Earth and the chemical reactions which must have occurred during each phase of the rock formation.
- Raman spectroscopy is a non-destructive technology that provides rapid identification of carbonate minerals, and has been helpful in unveiling the secrets of limestone.
Christopher Columbus may (or may not) have discovered the New World many centuries ago, but one thing is for certain: Exploration and discovery in the mining world is ongoing.