Mineral Resources of the Southwestern US

What is a mineral?

A mineral is a naturally occurring inorganic solid with a specific chemical composition and a well-developed crystalline structure. Minerals provide the foundation of our everyday world. Not only do they make up the rocks we see around us in the Southwest, they are also used in nearly every aspect of our lives. The minerals found in the rocks of the Southwest are used in industry, construction, machinery, technology, food, makeup, jewelry, and even the paper on which these words are printed.

Minerals provide the building blocks for rocks. For example, granite, an igneous rock, is typically made up of crystals of the minerals feldspar, quartz, mica, and amphibole. In contrast, sandstone may be made of cemented grains of feldspar, quartz, and mica. The minerals and the bonds between the crystals define a rock's color and resistance to weathering.

Several thousand minerals have been discovered and classified according to their chemical composition. Most of them are silicates (representing approximately a thousand different minerals, of which quartz and feldspar are two of the most common and familiar), which are made of silicon and oxygen combined with other elements (with the exception of quartz, SiO2). Carbonate rocks are made of carbon and oxygen combined with a metallic element; calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is the most common example, and most of it today originates as skeletal material precipitated by organisms. Other mineral categories include native elements (such as gold), oxides and sulfur-bearing minerals, and salts.

Metallic minerals are vital to the machinery and technology of modern civilization. However, many metals occur in the crust in amounts that can only be measured in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). A mineral is called an ore when one or more of its elements can be profitably removed, and it is almost always necessary to process ore minerals in order to isolate the useful element. For example, chalcopyrite (CuFeS2), which contains copper, iron, and sulfur, is referred to as a copper ore when the copper can be profitably extracted from the iron and sulfur. Ores are not uniformly distributed in the crust of the Earth, but instead occur in localized areas where they are concentrated in amounts sufficient to be economically extracted by mining.

Non-metallic minerals do not have the flash of a metal, though they may have the brilliance of a diamond or the silky appearance of gypsum (CaSO·2H2O). Generally much lighter in color than metals, non-metallic minerals can transmit light, at least along their edges or through small fragments.

Elements: The Building Blocks of Minerals

Elements are the building blocks of minerals. The mineral quartz, for example, is made of the elements silicon and oxygen, and, in turn, is also a major component of many rocks. Most minerals present in nature are not composed of a single element, though there are exceptions such as gold. Elements such as copper (Cu), lead (Pb), zinc (Zn), and even silver (Ag), gold (Au), and diamond (C) are not rare, but they are usually widely dispersed throughout rocks and occur at very low average concentrations. Eight elements make up (by weight) 99% of the Earth’s crust, with oxygen being the most abundant (46.4%). The remaining elements in the Earth’s crust occur in very small amounts, some in concentrations of only a fraction of one percent. Since silicon (Si) and oxygen (O) are the most abundant elements in the crust by mass, it makes sense for silicates (e.g., feldspar, quartz, and garnet) to be some of the most common minerals in the Earth's crust and to therefore be found throughout the Southwest.

Mineral percentage by mass in the Earth's crust.

Mineral percentage by mass in the Earth's crust.

Mineral Identification

Although defined by their chemical composition and crystal structure, minerals are identified based on their physical properties. A variety of properties must usually be determined when identifying a mineral, with each such property eliminating possible alternatives.

Hardness is a very useful property for identification, as a given mineral can only exhibit a narrow range of hardnesses, and since it is easily testable, this property can be used to quickly and simply minimize the number of possibilities. Hardness is important because it helps us understand why some rocks are more or less resistant to weathering and erosion. Quartz, with a rating of 7 on the Mohs scale, is a relatively hard mineral, but calcite (CaCO3), rating 3 on the Mohs scale, is significantly softer. Therefore, it should be no surprise that quartz sandstone is much more resistant to erosion and weathering than is limestone, which is primarily made of the mineral calcite. Quartz is a very common mineral in the Earth's crust, and it is quite resistant due to its hardness and relative insolubility. Thus, quartz grains are the dominant mineral type in nearly all types of sand.

Mohs Scale of Hardness

In 1824, the Austrian mineralogist Friedrich Mohs selected ten minerals to which all other minerals could be compared to determine their relative hardness. The scale became known as the Mohs scale of hardness, and it remains very useful as a means for identifying minerals or for quickly determining their hardness. Everyday items can be used to determine hardness if the minerals in the scale are not available. These include a streak plate or piece of unglazed porcelain (hardness 7), a piece of glass (hardness 5), a penny (hardness 3), and a fingernail (hardness 2).

Color is helpful in identifying some minerals such as sulfur, but it is uninformative or even misleading in others such as garnet. Luster describes how light is reflected from a mineral's surface and it can range from adamantine, seen in diamonds, to dull or earthy (effectively no luster), such as in kaolinite. Crystal form, if visible, can also be diagnostic. For example, fluorite and calcite may appear superficially similar, but fluorite forms cubic crystals while calcite forms trigonal-rhombohedral crystals.

Relatedly, crystals may have planes of weakness that cause them to break in characteristic ways, called cleavage. Or they may not, but instead display fracture when broken. For example, mica and graphite have very strong cleavage, allowing them to easily be broken into thin sheets, while quartz and glass (the latter not being a mineral) have no cleavage, instead displaying a distinctive curved fracture form known as conchoidal. The density of a mineral may also aid in identifying it (e.g., metals tend to be very dense). Finding the exact density is straightforward, but it does require measuring the volume of the sample. Placing an unknown mineral in water (or other liquid) to find its volume by displacement can be a risky undertaking since several minerals react violently with water, and many more break down with exposure. A mineral's streak is obtained by dragging it across a porcelain plate, effectively powdering it. The color of the powder eliminates conflating variables of external weathering, crystal habit, impurities, etc. Some minerals are magnetic (affected by magnetic fields), while a few are natural magnets (capable of producing a magnetic field).

There are many more interesting and distinguishing properties that minerals may possess, and there are many more elaborate and precise means for identifying them. The branch of geology that studies the chemical and physical properties and formation of minerals is called mineralogy.

Most minerals can be identified through the process of elimination after examining a few of these properties and consulting a mineral identification guide. Mineral testing kits often include several common objects used to test hardness: a porcelain streak plate, a magnet, and a magnifying glass. Some minerals have rare properties, which may be more difficult to test. For example, there are minerals that exhibit luminescence of all types, giving off light due to a particular stimulus. Some minerals are radioactive, usually due to the inclusion of significant amounts of uranium, thorium, or potassium in their structure. Carbonate minerals will effervesce when exposed to hydrochloric acid. Double refraction describes the result of light passing through a material that splits it into two polarized sets of rays, doubling images viewed through that material. For example, a single line on a sheet of paper will appear as two parallel lines when viewed through a clear calcite crystal.

What Are Minerals Used For?

Mineral resources fall into many different categories, including industrial minerals, construction materials, gemstones, and metallic and non-metallic ores. Some minerals and rocks are abundant and are used in the construction industry or in the manufacturing of many of the products we commonly find in stores. Construction materials include dimension stone (e.g., sandstone, limestone, and granite), which is used for the exterior or interior of structures. Minerals used in manufacturing include kaolinite for ceramics, gypsum for wallboard, fluorite for the fluoride in toothpaste, and halite for common table and rock salt. We also seek out specific rock types and sediment to use in the construction of buildings, highways, and bridges. Decorative statues are commonly constructed of marble, jade, or soapstone. Granite, travertine, and other decorative stones are increasingly used to beautify our home interiors and to make art, in addition to being used in public buildings. Some minerals are considered to be precious or semi-precious and are used in jewelry, including diamond and some crystalline forms of quartz.

What distinguishes a regular mineral from a gem?

Minerals are assigned to the category of gemstones based primarily on our interpretation of what has value. Typically, the beauty, durability, and rarity of a mineral qualify it as a gemstone. Beauty refers to the luster, color, transparency, and brilliance of the mineral, though to some degree it is dependent on the skillfulness of the cut. Not all gems are prized for these reasons; for example, scarcity may be artificially inflated, or a mineral may be valued for its unusual color.

Gemstones can be further categorized as precious or semiprecious stones. Precious stones, including diamond, topaz, and sapphire, are rare and translucent to light. They are more durable because they are hard, making them scratch resistant. On the Mohs scale of hardness, the majority of precious gemstones have values greater than 7. Semi-precious stones are generally softer, with hardness scale values between 5 and 7. The minerals peridot, jade, garnet, amethyst, citrine, rose quartz, tourmaline, and turquoise are examples of semiprecious stones that can be cut and used in jewelry.

Gems may have common names that differ from their geological ones, and these names may be dependent on mineral color. For example, the mineral beryl is also referred to as emerald, aquamarine, or morganite depending on its color. Corundum can also be called sapphire or ruby, and peridot is another name for olivine.

Metallic minerals have many applications and are used to manufacture many of the items we see and use every day. For example, iron comes from hematite and magnetite, and from it we make steel. Lead, from the mineral galena, is used in the manufacture of batteries and in the solder found in electronic devices. Titanium, from the mineral ilmenite, is used in airplanes, spacecraft, and even white nail polish. Aluminum comes from bauxite and is known for being both lightweight and strong—many of the parts that make up today's automobiles are made of this metal. Copper comes from a variety of copperbearing minerals, including chalcopyrite, and is used to make electrical wire, tubing, and pipe.

Mineral Formation

Economically recoverable mineral deposits are formed by geologic processes that can selectively concentrate desirable elements in a relatively small area. These processes may be physical or chemical, and they fall into four categories:

Magmatic processes separate minor elements of magma from the major elements and concentrate them in a small volume of rock. This may involve either the early crystallization of ore minerals from the magma while most other components remain molten or late crystallization after most other components have crystallized. Magmatic processes responsible for the formation of mineral deposits are usually associated with igneous intrusions (formed during mountain building events, rifting, and volcanic activity), which can range in composition from granite (felsic) to gabbro (mafic). Metamorphism may also cause recrystallization of minerals and concentration of rare elements. Under conditions of extreme high-temperature metamorphism, minerals with the lowest melting temperatures in the crust may melt to form small quantities of pegmatite magmas.

Hydrothermal processes involve hydrothermal solutions that dissolve minor elements dispersed through large volumes of rock, transport them to a new location, and precipitate them in a small area at a much higher concentration. Hydrothermal solutions are commonly salty, acidic, and range in temperature from over 600°C (~1100°F) to less than 60°C (140°F). Some of these fluids may travel very long distances through permeable sedimentary rock. Eventually, the hydrothermal fluids precipitate their highly dissolved load of elements, creating concentrated deposits.

Sedimentary processes gather elements dispersed through large volumes of water and precipitate them in a sedimentary environment, such as in sedimentary layers on the ocean floor or on lakebeds. Sedimentary mineral deposits form by direct precipitation from the water.

Weathering and erosion break down large volumes of rock by physical and chemical means and gather previously dispersed elements or minerals into highly concentrated deposits. Residual weathering deposits are mineral depos-its formed through the concentration of a weathering-resistant mineral, as a result of surrounding minerals being eroded and dissolved. In contrast, mineral deposits formed by the concentration of minerals in moving waters are called placer deposits.

A mineral is not necessarily restricted to one method of concentration or environment of formation. For example, economically important deposits of gypsum may form as a precipitate from evaporating water. In contrast, gypsum formation may also be associated with volcanic regions where limestone and sulfur gases from the volcano have interacted with one another, or even from other areas as a product of the chemical weathering of pyrite.

Minerals in the Southwest

Each region of the Southwest (the Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range, Rocky Mountains, and Great Plains) contains significant economic metallic and nonmetallic mineral deposits. The distribution and occurrence of these deposits are not always restricted to one region—the geology, geologic history, and associated mineral resources of the Southwestern US are intimately intertwined across regional and state boundaries. This cross cutting of the regions by mineral deposits reflects not only the type of deposit but also how and when the minerals were emplaced, and how geology controlled their emplacement. In many parts of the Southwest, the dry environment also allows for relatively easy access to both bedrock surfaces and accumulations of weathered rock for the exploration of minerals that lie within or that have been weathered out of the region's rocks.

See Chapter 6: Energy to learn more about the extraction of fossil fuel resources in the Southwest.

Both the Southwestern and Northwest Central states are major contributors to mineral production in the United States. In some cases, these states produce the majority of a particular mineral used by the US and may even contain the largest deposits in the world of certain mineral types. For example, most of the country's uranium deposits are located in the Southwest or the Northwest Central. Ninety percent of the copper produced in the US comes from two states in the Southwest: Arizona and Utah. Significant quantities of gold, silver, and molybdenum are also produced here, along with industrial minerals such as potash and soda ash. Throughout the Southwest, the deposition of sediment has also left behind an abundance of deposits useful as construction materials. River systems deposited sand and gravel, while ancient seas that spread across the area left behind thick deposits of halite and gypsum. The advance of inland seas and the subsequent deposition of marine detritus also made possible the widespread existence of energy resources (fossil fuels) throughout the area, most notably oil, natural gas, and coal. Some of the natural gas produced in the Southwest also contains helium in sufficient concentrations to be profitably extracted—it originates from the decay of radioactive elements in the source rocks of accumulated natural gas.