Last month, scientists uncovered a mineral called Edscottite. Minerals are solid, naturally occurring substances that are usually not living, comparable to quartz or haematite. This recent mineral was discovered after an examination of the Wedderburn Meteorite, a metallic-looking rock present in Central Victoria back in 1951.

Edscottite is manufactured from iron and carbon, and was likely formed throughout the core of one other planet. It’s a “true” mineral, meaning one which is of course occurring and formed by geological processes either on Earth or in outer-space.

But while the Wedderburn Meteorite held the first-known discovery of Edscottite, other recent mineral discoveries have been made on Earth, of gear formed in consequence of human activities comparable to mining and mineral processing. These are called anthropogenic minerals.

While true minerals comprise nearly all of the roughly 5,200 known minerals, there are about 208 human-made minerals which have been approved as minerals by the International Mineralogical Association.

Some are made on purpose and others are by-products. Either way, the flexibility to fabricate minerals has vast implications for the longer term of our rapidly growing population.

Modern-day alchemy

Climate change is considered one of the most important challenges we face. While governments debate the longer term of coal-burning power stations, carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere. We need progressive strategies to capture it.

Actively manufacturing minerals comparable to nesquehonite is one possible approach. It has applications in constructing and construction, and making it requires removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Nesquehonite occurs naturally when magnesian rocks slowly break down. It has been identified on the Paddy’s River mine within the Australian Capital Territory and locations in New South Wales.

But scientists discovered it might even be made by passing carbon dioxide into an alkaline solution and having it react with magnesium chloride or sodium carbonate/bicarbonate.

This is a growing area of research.

Other synthetic minerals comparable to hydrotalcite are produced when asbestos tailings passively absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, as discovered by scientists on the Woodsreef asbestos mine in New South Wales.

You could say this can be a type of “modern-day alchemy” which, if taken advantage of, could possibly be an efficient strategy to suck carbon dioxide from the air at a big scale.

Meeting society’s metal demands

Mining and mineral processing is designed to recuperate metals from ore, which is a natural occurrence of rock or sediment containing sufficient minerals with economically essential elements. But through mining and mineral processing, recent minerals will also be created.

Smelting is used to supply a spread of commodities comparable to lead, zinc and copper, by heating ore to high temperatures to supply pure metals.

The process also produces a glass-like waste product called slag, which is deposited as molten liquid, resembling lava.

This is a backscattered electron microscope image of historical slag collected from a Rio Tinto mine in Spain.
Image collected by Anita Parbhakar-Fox on the University of Tasmania (UTAS)

Once cooled, the textural and mineralogical similarities between lava and slag are crystal-clear.

Micro-scale inspection shows human-made minerals in slag have a singular ability to accommodate metals into their crystal lattice that might not be possible in nature.

This means metal recovery from mine waste (a possible secondary resource) could possibly be an efficient strategy to complement society’s growing metal demands. The challenge lies in developing processes that are cost effective.

Ethically-sourced jewellery

Our increasing knowledge on manufacture minerals can also have a serious impact on the growing synthetic gem manufacturing industry.

In 2010, the world was awestruck by the engagement ring given to Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, valued at about £300,000 (AUD$558,429).

The ring has a 12-carat blue sapphire, surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds, with a setting produced from 18-carat white gold.

Kate Middleton’s ring was once owned by Princess Diana.

Replicas of it have been acquired by people across the globe, but for less than a fraction of the worth. How?

In 1837, Marc Antoine Gardin demonstrated that sapphires (mineralogically often known as corundum or aluminium oxide) might be replicated by reacting metals with other substances comparable to chromium or boric acid. This produces a spread of seemingly similar colored stones.

On close examination, some properties may vary comparable to the presence of flaws and air bubbles and the stone’s hardness. But only a gemologist or gem enthusiast would likely notice this.

Diamonds will also be synthetically made, through either a high pressure, hot temperature, or chemical vapour deposition process.

Synthetic diamonds have essentially the identical chemical composition, crystal structure and physical properties as natural diamonds.
Instytut Fizyki Uniwersytet Kazimierza Wielkiego

Creating synthetic gems is increasingly essential as natural stones have gotten tougher and expensive to source. In some countries, the rights of miners are also violated and this poses ethical concerns.

Medical and industrial applications

Synthetic gems have industrial applications too. They might be utilized in window manufacturing, semi-conducting circuits and cutting tools.

One example of a completely manufactured mineral is something called yttrium aluminum garnet (or YAG) which might be used as a laser.

In medicine, these lasers are used to correct glaucoma. In dental surgery, they permit soft gum and tissues to be cut away.

The move to develop recent minerals will even support technologies enabling deep space exploration through the creation of ‘quantum materials’.

Quantum materials have unique properties and can help us create a brand new generation of electronic products, which could have a big impact on space travel technologies. Maybe this may allow us to sooner or later visit the birthplace of Edscottite?

In a long time to come back, the variety of human-made minerals is set to extend. And because it does, so too does the chance to seek out recent uses for them.

By expanding our ability to fabricate minerals, we could reduce pressure on existing resources and find recent ways to tackle global challenges.

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