Scientists unravel the unique origins of Earth’s minerals in landmark study

Scientists have deciphered 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 years before our planet was born.

Nature created 40 percent of the earth’s 5,659 recognized mineral species, and in some cases used more than 15 unique recipes to create their crystal structure and chemical composition.

The scientists found that water played a dominant role in the formation of over 80 percent 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 are 2,400 of the planet’s minerals.

In the last 4.5 billion years, nature has taken 21 different paths to create pyrite, also known as fool's gold, the mineral world champion of various origins.

In the last 4.5 billion years, nature has taken 21 different paths to create pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, the mineral world champion of various origins.

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

Nine of the 5,659 recognized mineral species studied by scientists were formed by 15 or more different physical, chemical, and/or biological processes—everything from near-instantaneous formation by lightning or meteorite impacts to alterations by water-rock interactions or Transformations at high pressures and temperatures over hundreds of millions of years.

Scientists found that pyrite, known as fool’s gold, was formed in 21 different ways, making it the master 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 doesn’t matter at all.

In contrast, diamonds were formed in at least nine ways, including condensation in the cooling atmospheres of old stars, during a meteorite impact, and under hot ultra-high pressure deep within the Earth.

“Minerals may hold the key to reconstructing all of Earth’s ‘past life’ and predicting ‘future life’,” say the researchers. Pictured above is a stunning example of a bio-mineral from Alberta, Canada – a hybrid of minerals and life

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

“Minerals may hold the key to reconstructing all of Earth’s ‘past life’ and predicting ‘future life’,” and understanding mineral evolution “offers us a new way to explore space and search for extraterrestrial and habitable life.” look for planets in the future.’

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

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

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

This has important implications for determining whether we really are alone in the universe.

“If life in the Universe is rare, then this view of a mineralogically diverse early Earth offers much more plausible reactive pathways over a longer period of time than previous models,” the authors write.

“However, if life is a cosmic necessity arising on every mineral- and water-rich world, then these results support the hypothesis that life on Earth evolved rapidly in the early stages of planetary evolution.”

Researchers say that around 4.45 billion years ago, when water first appeared on Earth, the earliest water-rock interactions may have produced up to 350 minerals in near-surface marine and terrestrial environments.  Earth is shown above.

Researchers say that around 4.45 billion years ago, when water first appeared on Earth, the earliest water-rock interactions may have produced up to 350 minerals in near-surface marine and terrestrial environments. Earth is shown above.

After accounting for mineral genesis, researchers totaled over 10,500 “mineral species” – a newly coined term – which is about 75 percent more than the 6,000 mineral species officially recognized by the International Mineralogical Association.

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

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

“On the other hand, if the moon is truly dry, what paragenetic processes are excluded?”

Paragenetic simply refers to a set of minerals formed together.

“The sharp contrast between Earth’s great mineral richness and the relative mineralogical sparsity of the Moon and Mercury, as well as the modest diversity found on Mars, stems from the differential influences of water,” say the authors. Shown is an image of Mars released by the China National Space Administration

“And do extraterrestrial bodies show paragenetic processes not seen on Earth, like cryovolcanism on Titan?”

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

“Minerals become witnesses, markers, of the long history of matter taking shape in supernova explosions, accumulating in nascent planetary systems, and even accompanying the emergence and evolution of life on a planet like Earth.

“Most scientists produce data, some are lucky enough to make discoveries, few change our worldview. Hazen is one of them.”

Their work was published July 1 in American Mineralogist magazine.

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