Scientists decipher unique origins of Earth’s minerals in landmark study

Scientists decipher unique origins of Earth’s minerals in landmark study

Scientists have uncovered the mysterious origins of Earth’s minerals and detailed their diverse formation over billions of years, finding evidence of the role of water and rare elements in their formation, as well as 297 that predate birth of our planet.

Nature created 40% of the 5,659 recognized mineral species on Earth and in some cases used more than 15 unique recipes to produce their crystal structure and chemical composition.

Scientists have found that water plays a predominant role in the formation of more than 80% of mineral species and that 41 rare earth elements – including arsenic, cadmium, gold, mercury, silver, titanium, zinc, uranium and tungsten – are essential components of approximately 2,400 of the planet’s minerals.

Nature has used 21 different ways over the past 4.5 billion years to create pyrite, also known as fool's gold, the world champion mineral with diverse origins.

Nature has used 21 different ways over the past 4.5 billion years to create pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, the world champion mineral with diverse origins.

“This work fundamentally changes our view of the diversity of minerals on the planet,” says study co-author and scientist Dr Robert Hazen of the Earth and Planets Laboratory, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC, in a statement. .

Nine of the 5,659 recognized mineral species studied by scientists came into being via at least 15 different physical, chemical and/or biological processes – which included everything from near-instantaneous formation by lightning or meteor impacts, to changes caused by water-rock interactions or transformations at high pressures and temperatures spanning hundreds of millions of years.

Scientists have found that pyrite, known as fool’s gold, formed in 21 different ways, making it the champion of diverse origins.

Pyrite can form at high and low temperatures, with and without water, with the help of microbes and also in harsh environments where life plays no role.

In contrast, diamonds are born in at least nine ways, including condensation in the cooling atmospheres of old stars, during a meteorite impact, and under hot ultrahigh pressure deep within the Earth.

“Minerals can be essential for reconstructing all the ‘past life’ and predicting the ‘future life’ of the Earth,” says the researcher. The image above is an amazing example from Alberta, Canada, of a biomineral – an intersection of minerals and life

“Hazen and Morrison’s remarkable work offers a potential way to predictably discover possible minerals in nature,” says Anhuai Lu, president of the Mineralogical Association and professor at the School of Earth and Earth Sciences. space of Peking University in Beijing, China.

“Minerals may be essential for reconstructing all ‘past life’ and predicting Earth’s ‘future life’, and understanding the evolution of minerals” will provide us with a new avenue for exploring deep space and searching for life. extraterrestrial and habitable”. planets in the future.’

According to the paper’s abstract, the timeline of mineral formation on Earth suggests that most of this diversity was established during the first 250 million years of the planet’s existence.

Pictured above: Beryl, the most common mineral containing the element beryllium, comes in many beautiful colors such as emerald - its common name

Pictured above: Beryl, the most common mineral containing the element beryllium, comes in many beautiful colors such as emerald – its common name

This has significant implications for determining whether we are truly alone in the universe.

“If life is rare in the universe, then this view of a mineralogically diverse early Earth provides many more plausible feedback pathways over a longer time period than previous models,” the authors write.

“If, however, life is a cosmic imperative that emerges on any mineral- and water-rich world, then these findings support the hypothesis that life on Earth developed rapidly in the early stages of life. ‘planetary evolution’.

Around 4.45 billion years ago, when water first appeared on Earth, early water-rock interactions may have produced up to 350 minerals in near-surface marine and terrestrial environments, according to the researchers.  Pictured above is Earth.

Around 4.45 billion years ago, when water first appeared on Earth, early water-rock interactions may have produced up to 350 minerals in near-surface marine and terrestrial environments, according to the researchers. Pictured above is Earth.

Once they accounted for mineral genesis, the researchers found a total of more than 10,500 “mineral types” – a newly coined term – about 75% more than the 6,000 mineral species officially recognized by the International Mineralogical Association.

“What mineral-forming environments occur on the Moon, Mars, and other terrestrial worlds?” ask the authors.

“If Mars had (or still has) a hydrological cycle, what mineralogical manifestations could we expect?

“On the other hand, if the Moon is really dry, then what paragenetic processes are excluded?”

Paragenetics simply refers to a collection of minerals that formed together.

“The stark contrast between Earth’s large complement of minerals and the relative mineralogical sparseness of the Moon and Mercury, as well as the modest diversity found on Mars, stems from the different influences of water,” explain the authors. Pictured is an image of Mars released by the China National Space Administration

“And do extraterrestrial bodies exhibit paragenetic processes unknown on Earth, such as cryo-volcanism on Titan?”

“Hazen and his colleagues have changed this way of looking at minerals. In addition to chemical composition and physical properties, Hazen emphasizes their conditions and contexts of formation, and a new way of seeing minerals appears,” explains Professor Patrick Cordier, from the Institut universitaire de France.

“Minerals become witnesses, markers of the long history of matter that takes shape in supernova explosions, gathers in forming planetary systems and even, on a planet like Earth, accompanies the emergence and development of life.

“Most scientists produce data, some are fortunate enough to make discoveries, few transform our view of the world. Hazen is one of them.

Their work was published in the journal American Mineralogist on July 1.

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