Human activity helps create hundreds of new minerals

Human activity helps create hundreds of new minerals

Human activity helps create hundreds of new minerals

Updated 3 March 2017, 0:10 AEDT

It took billions of years for most of the Earth's minerals to form, but scientists say hundreds more have been created in the years since the industrial revolution.

Human-made minerals created in the years since the industrial revolution have been uncovered by scientists, who want them to be accepted as real minerals.

Armed with the discovery, they are pushing to have the geological time scale recognise 'the Anthropocene' time period — or the epoch of human activity.

"We define different periods of Earth history by the distinctive things we find in them," said Robert Hazen, a mineralogist at Washington's Carnegie Institution for Science.

"They [the minerals] would tell future geologists that something was different about this layer — I think there is no question about it."

The new minerals were created by chance, when substances that would otherwise have never encountered one another came into contact as a result of human activity.

They have been discovered at the bottom of mines, underwater in shipwrecks and even in one case in a desk drawer.

Mr Hazen said a curator found an Egyptian statue at the bottom of a museum drawer and noticed a blue coating on the statue; it turned out to be a new mineral called Chalconatronite.

"Those minerals would never have occurred if it weren't for the fact that a mineral collector collected the mineral, left them in the oak drawer and then the oak drawer reacted to produce another new mineral," he said.

He said another bizarre find was Tinnunculite, "when a certain species of falcon poops on a burning coal mine".

Geologists and mineralogists determined Tinnunculite was a product of hot gases reacting with the excrement of the Eurasian kestrel at a burning coal mine in Kopeisk, Russia.

"It underscores a point that most minerals that are occurring on Earth today are biologically mediated. In some way or another biology is causing those new mineral species," he said.

Most of the Earth's roughly 5,000 or so different types of minerals were formed during what is known as the Great Oxidation 2 billion years ago.

The team from Washington's Carnegie Institution for Science have now identified another 208.

Mr Hazen said it was an extraordinary increase.

"This is an amazing punctuation event in the evolution of minerals on Earth," he said.

"It's a real change and it has to do with human ingenuity and human activities, the way we change Earth's surface, the way we basically modify things."

The new minerals will now continue to exist for billions of years.

Synthetic minerals and compounds are already used by humans for making batteries, alloys and fabrics, and Mr Hazen thinks the new minerals have the potential to be just as beneficial.

"We project that there's about 1,500 mineral species that have yet to be found," he said.

"We've been focused particularly on the carbon minerals because of the deep carbon observatory.

"There's an international organisation that focuses on this incredibly important element of life of industry that affects our climate, it affects our environment and basically most of our new materials have carbon.

"We initiated something called carbon mineral challenges, we challenge the international mineral community to find these predicted new carbon minerals."

Mr Hazen's study on new minerals was published yesterday in the journal American Mineralogist.