Scientists from Michigan Technological University have identified a totally new mineral, named merelaniite, after the Merelani region of Tanzania where it was discovered.
Today’s technology-driven industries are constantly on the lookout for new applications for materials, metals and minerals, which is part of the reason why the designation of a brand new mineral is cause for excitement. The other part? They’re just plain cool.
“Minerals have an internal beauty in their crystal structures and in the way that influences their properties,” says John Jaszczak, Michigan Tech University physicist who along with his research colleagues can lay claim to the new discovery. “Minerals have a natural wow factor, and while we use many of them daily without thinking twice, some specimens are truly art.”
Known for its abundance of rare minerals, the Merelani district has been a favourite for minerals miners for decades, producing among others brilliantly coloured zoisite gemstones. But the finding of a new mineral is itself a rarity, as most minerals claimed to be unique are proven to be varieties of already-observed minerals upon further inspection. Not so for merelaniite, as detailed in a new paper in the journal Minerals.
Researchers used detailed chemical and physical analysis, Ramen spectrometry and electron microscopy to study the mineral, which forms into tiny coiled sheets of predominantly molybdenum, lead and sulfur. Described by the scientists as sharp whiskers of on average one millimetre in length (although some have been found up to 12 mm long), the merelaniite spears are metallic dark grey in colour with pale blue and orange tints.
“Learning about minerals with unique crystal structures grants insight into the nature of matter, and sometimes leads to new human-made materials, their inspiration comes from natural sources,” says Jaszczak, who sees the new discovery as valuable.
“It is one thing to find a mineral that is probably new; it is quite another thing to be able to perform all of the required analyses to satisfy the CNMNC (the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification) for approval of its status and a new name,” Jaszczak says.
In other mining news, the Canadian Press reports that with the market in rare earth elements becoming ever more volatile, Canadian companies have banded together under the auspices of the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network, to collaborate on extraction and refining methods.
The Canadian rare earths industry is facing a steep downturn in prices for rare earth elements over the past two years and are up against stiff competition, with China currently standing as the world’s dominant supplier. Last year’s federal budget earmarked $23 million over five years to assist collaboration among Canada’s rare earth miners, a welcome move says Ian London, head of the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network. “There are a number of challenges faced by each of the developing companies, and this funding has encouraged them to collaborate and solve them,” London said.
Rare earth elements comprise a group of 17 elements which are not in fact rare but scarce, in that they are found in minute quantities within ore deposits, making them challenging to source for use in today’s electronics. Rare earths mining projects have been proposed for Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland and Labrador.