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Minerals

Keep up-to-date with the current mineral of the month! From aluminium to zinc we’ll cover an array of metals and minerals that are essential to daily life. Click here to find out the mineral for this month.

Bauxite

Along the mostly white Mediterranean landscapes from Spain to Greece, there are colourful patches of rock with a red-pink-purple-ochre-brown spectrum. This rock is called Bauxite, named after a small town in southern France called Les Beaux-de-Provence. It means beautiful or handsome in French.

Bauxite in daily life

90 percent of Bauxite is used for making alumina, which is largely used to produce aluminium. The other 10 percent is put toward a variety of uses such as abrasives, water purification, and refining kerosene. But of course, aluminium permeates our lives, from the aluminium foil we use to preserve leftovers to the canned beverages we might enjoy with those leftovers to the airplanes we travel in to visit family. Aluminium, though artificially made, is possible because of those colourful Mediterranean rocks

Beryllium

Beryllium is a silver-white relatively hard but brittle metal. It is light (1.5 times lighter than aluminium) however it is strong (stronger than steel) and heat resistant (can withstand heat up to 700-800 Degrees Celsius). Beryllium is rare mineral, with an average concentration in the earth’s crust of about 4ppm (parts per million e.g. there are 6mg of the minerals per kg of rock). In contrast to other rare metals, it is mostly concentrated in the form of its own minerals among which beryl, phenacite and bertrandite are of commercial importance. The main beryllium raw material is bertrandite ore.

French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, who had discovered beryllium, suggested calling it “glucinum” (from Greek glycos- sweet) due to the sweet taste of its salts.

Uses of Beryllium in our daily life

Beryllium weakly absorbs X-rays, thus it is used for manufacturing X-ray tube windows where the X-rays come out and wide-range gamma ray detectors, through which radiation enters the detector. It is also readily found in objects such as the jewellery we wear, needles for injections, springs for Swiss watches (an alloy of nickel, beryllium and tungsten) and ball point pens.

Beryllium is also a material for manufacturing heat shields and gyroscopic devices for guidance and orientation systems in high-speed aircrafts, space vihicles, submarines and surface vessels.A special grade of metal with extremly high reflectivity was developed for space and optical mirrors.

Copyright: ESA/NASA

Copper

Copper is a mineral with many benefits! Not only is it the best conductor of electricity and heat, it also has ductile and malleable properties making it easy to form into various shapes including wires and jewellery.

Additionally, copper has a germicidal effect which neutralises many germs. It is often used as an alloy with tin (Sn) in things like doorknobs due to its automatic disinfecting qualities. This property was initially observed in Classical antiquity and copper was used by ancient civilizations as medicine for treating wounds.

Uses of copper in our daily life

Due to its excellent electrical and thermal conductivity, copper is found in many household items like piping, lightning rods, and cooling units such as refrigerators, air conditioners and other electrical appliances. It is also widely used in coins, transport (e.g. trains) musical instruments, phones, computers, wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and electric generators.

Dolomite

The dolomite mineral is a beautiful one due to it’s crystallising properties and white, tan, gray or pink colouring. It has an alternate structural arrangement of calcium and magnesium ions and has similar uses to limestone.

One of the first people to describe this mineral was in 1791 by the French naturalist and geologist Deodat Gratet de Dolomieu. He noticed it in the first buildings of the old city of Rome and later from samples collected in the Dolomite Alps of Northern Italy.

Uses of Dolomite in our daily life

Dolomite can be ‘hidden’ in many products we use everyday. For example, it is commonly used as antacids (neutralizes stomach acid), a base for face creams, baby powders, or toothpaste, calcium/magnesium nutritional supplements for animals and humans. Finely ground dolomite is used for filler applications in plastics, paints, rubber, adhesives and sealants. Pure white (high brightness) filler grades are preferred in this case.

The most important use, by volume, is in the construction industry. Dolomite and limestone are used in similar ways; they are crushed and used as an aggregate for both cement and bitumen mixes. Road builders mix it with concrete and asphalt and it is used as a ballast for railroads. Like limestone, dolostones are used as a construction resource for local consumption because of low transportation cost. Because its yellowish colour, dolostones are used as building stones and gravel for garden paths and driveways (e.g. “golden” gravel).

Feldspar

The name feldspar is given to a group of minerals that contain alumina and silica in their chemistry (including aluminium silicates of soda, potassium or lime). About 60% of the earth’s crust is made from feldspar making it the most abundant group of minerals.

More than 70% of the feldspars produced in the EU are used in the ceramic industry and most of the rest is in glass production. In ceramics, manufacturing feldspar is the second most important ingredient after clay. Feldspar does not have a strict melting point since it melts gradually over a range of temperatures which greatly facilitates the melting of quartz and clays. Feldspar improves the strength, toughness and durability of the ceramic body and cements the crystalline phase of other ingredients, softening, melting and wetting other batch constituents.

In the manufacture of glass, the alkali content in feldspar acts as flux, lowering the glass batch melting temperature and thus reducing production costs.

Uses of Feldspar in our daily life

Most of the products we use on a daily basis are made with feldspar e.g. glasses for drinking, glass for protection, fiberglass for insulation, the floor tiles and shower basins in our bathrooms, and the tableware from which we eat.

Gold

Gold had a great and frequently mystic influence on people from the beginning of mankind, being used for jewellery, treasure, raw material, as a measure for money (universal currency) and has also been associated with divinity and royalty, promoting the yellow colour as a noble one in many civilizations. Additionally, it is also a symbol of the winners (gold medalists) and persistence (most wedding rings are made of gold). More recent medical and high-tech uses complete the importance of the metal in everyday life.

Pure gold is too soft for most manufacturing purposes. This is why it is used in alloys with other metals, which can alter its colour, generating varieties of white gold (allied with nickel, silver or palladium), red or pink gold (with copper) or blue gold (allied with iron). On the purpose of briefly stating of gold content in an alloy, the karat/carat system is used. Pure gold has 24 karat while an alloy with 50% Au has 12 karat, one with 75% Au has 18 karat etc.

Uses of gold in our daily life

Maybe the oldest use of gold is in jewellery and ornamental objects. This is the use of more than 50% of the gold mined to present. Beside its use in

adornments for people’s personal use, gold is employed for the ornamentation of buildings (exterior and/or interior) as well as coating of palaces, temples, churches, statues, icons, books, frames etc.

Like copper, gold is a very good electricity conductor and it is used for fuses, switches, connectors, electronic circuits and chips in computers, cell phones or TV sets. Gold is also used in catalytic convertors or as lubricant against cold welding (very useful in space, where many other lubricants can break down or evaporate).

Graphite

Graphite has long-standing uses in lead pencils and as a mechanical lubricant, but today graphite is also a high-technology material used in composites, electronics and foils. Graphite has a unique set of properties that makes it an essential component in an extremely wide range of applications.

Graphite is electrically and thermally conductive, it is both lubricating and refractory and retains strength at very high temperatures. Graphite is chemically resistant and the mono-layer version - the graphene building blocks - is one of the strongest materials ever tested. The main modern uses of natural graphite is in high-temperature applications, such as crucibles and furnaces, in steel production, brake pads and linings for cars, and in electrical applications and batteries for the complete range of portable consumer electronics. It is also important in electric vehicles. In fact the so-called lithium-ion battery, found in almost all mobile electronic equipment, contains twice as much graphite as lithium. Fuel cell technology is expected to increase demand for natural graphite significantly.

Graphene is predicted to be THE material of the future - a one atom thick layer of graphite carrying all the properties of ordinary graphite in combination with extraordinary strength, stability and flexibility, low weight and transparency. According to the European Commision report on defining critical raw materials, the EU is 95 % dependant on imports of graphite to supply the European industry. The criticality issue probably mainly applies to the flake segment.

Uses of graphite in our daily life

Charging/using your mobile/smart phone or tablet. Writing with a pencil. Driving an electric vehicle. Stepping on the brakes in your car.

Gypsum

Gypsum is one of the oldest minerals known to be used by man. Its dehydrated form is what we commonly call plaster. It was used in ancient civilizations in Egypt, Rome, Mesopotamia, as well as Medieval England for reproductions of statues and casts of human faces. The inhabitants of Pompeii were cast in gypsum.

It was also frequently used in ancient times for “plastering of wine,” namely in France and Sicily. This was a process in which Plaster of Paris was added to wine to improve its acidity.

Uses of gypsum in our daily life

Today we still take advantage of gypsum as a soft mineral. It is used in the ceramics industry for molds and master models, in orthopaedics for plaster casts and in orthodontics for dental impressions. However, we have also discovered additional uses beyond making impressions. In buildings, it is used for walls, ceilings, covered plasterboard, plaster blocks and stucco, and it is a key ingredient in cement, where it delays the setting time.

Additionally, gypsum is used as a filler for pills, was previously used to produce chalk (now replaced by calcium carbonate rocks), and as a soil conditioner and component in fertilizers.

Iron

Almost all (98%) of globally produced iron ore goes to making steel. Steel is an alloy of (mostly) iron, carbon and other elements with carbon content less than 2%. Steel is the most used and important engineering material in the world due to its high strength relative to weight and cost effectiveness. The usage of iron (in steel) is about 20 times more than all other metals usage put together. About 60% of iron and steel products are used in construction and transportation. 20% are used in machinery manufacture.

The rest are used for packaging, in power and energy sectors and in various household appliances and other equipment.

Uses of iron in our daily life

Iron has been used throughout history for many purposes. Wrought iron can be used for seating, fences, and other decorative purposes whilst cast iron is commonly used in kitchen utensils such as frying pans.

Iron is often combined with steel to create an alloyed steel which and is ideal for use in construction. For example, alloyed steel is frequently used for the framework of a number of storage buildings, as well as in the construction of some parts of automobiles and the hulls of large carrier and passenger ships.

Kaolin

Kaolin is a clay mineral which has a low shrink-swell capacity. It is a soft, earthy white mineral and has a wide variety of applications, most of which we use every day. The principal uses include ceramics (as the principal filling mass as well as the enamel cover, both to be fired), refractory and high-refractory (mullite) ceramics, paper industry (both filling and coating material, namely in chalk papers), rubber industry (filler), industry of plastics (filler) and even cosmetics and medicaments (filler in pills and tablets). A progressive kind of use of kaolin includes glass fibres.

In many parts of the world, it is colored pink-orange-red by iron oxide, giving it a distinct rust hue. Lighter concentrations yield white, yellow or light orange colors.

Uses of Kaolin in our daily life

Kaolin is in nearly everything! From toilet paper, soap and toothpaste to medicines in the form of tablets and pills, where more than 99 % of the mass is pure kaolinite. All kinds of whitewares, made from porcelain or stoneware (or even plastics) contain kaolin e.g. plates and saucers, dessert plates, dishes and salad bowls, little pots. Kaolin is also in table napkins and in most stationary products.

Nickel

Nickel is one of the most common elements on Earth, but it tends to favour difficult environments and extremely high temperatures. It’s found almost anywhere volcanic activity occurred in all of Earth’s history. This may be why the oldest metallic artefacts discovered with nickel in them were made more than 2,000 years ago.

Nickel in daily life

Most people interact with nickel every day through stainless steel. Nickel helps make this material resistant to corrosion, scratching, denting, and it does not react with foods that are highly acidic or alkaline. It’s also very safe, which makes it perfect for cookware and cutlery. Stainless steel a popular choice for kitchenware designers like the famous Danish designer Georg Jensen Leaf, whose stainless steel bowls are of the highest quality.

Stainless steel is also used in construction and aircrafts, and nickel is critical for rechargeable batteries, wind turbines, surgical equipment, mobile phones and water purifiers. Products that contain nickel have long life-spans and are highly recyclable.

Potash

Potash (potassium) is one of the three primary nutrients essential for plant growth and which form the basis of fertiliser production globally. It is involved in the production, transport and accumulation of sugars in plants and assists their hardiness and resistance to water stress, pests and disease. Potash applied as fertiliser, replaces potassium removed from the soil through plant harvesting and animal grazing.

Uses of potash in our daily life

Potash is used in a diverse range of fertiliser products, varying from granular and coarse grades suitable for direct application as a single nutrient fertiliser through to fine grades for the production of more complex fertilisers, consisting of nutrient blends. Global potash demand is primarily linked to agricultural productivity, which is growing rapidly. About half of the fertiliser used globally is applied to cereal crops. Potash is also used in animal feed supplements, which aid animal growth and milk production. Small quantities of potash and derived compounds are used by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries for the manufacture of a diverse range of goods, varying from soaps, the production of speciality glass, explosives, matches and pyrotechnics, water softening, and meat curing.

Salt

The table salt in your kitchen began as transparent cubic crystals growing deep underground. In addition to subterranean mines, salt is collected from sea water through evaporation pools. The current EU Presidency is host to a perfect location for salt production in this manner. As an island, Malta is surrounded by sea water, and it has a long, hot summer with almost no rain – ideal evaporation conditions.

Salt in daily life

Without sodium in our diets, our cells wouldn’t be able to function properly and we would suffer nausea and vomiting, fatigue, headaches, weakness, spasms, seizures, or even coma. But salt is easy to consume. It enables our sense of taste and brings out other food’s natural flavours.

Salt is also used to make saline solutions for intravenous therapy drips, cleaning contact lenses or new piercings, and nasal irrigation. Plus the wintry roads we face in February are much safer with salt helping to melt the ice.

Tungsten

Due its hardness and wear resistance, over 50% of the world tungsten production is used in producing hard materials based on cemented tungsten carbide, by far the most common tungsten compound. Tungsten carbide-based materials have a great variety of applications, including the use in cutting and drilling tools. The second largest application is in the production of special hard steels, with extreme resistance to corrosion and high temperatures. The high melting point making pure tungsten metal suitable for high temperature applications in energy- and lighting technology, and in the space industry.

The high density of tungsten is used in weights and counterweights for vibration damping in aerospace, automotive, sport and telecommunications applications.

Tungsten serves also as a substitute for lead and is used as radiation-shielding in medical engineering. X-ray tubes for medical use have emitter coils made of tungsten. Tungsten is also used in microchip technology and liquid crystals displays.

Uses of Tungsten in our daily life

Tungsten is used in mobile phone vibration caused by an unbalanced-mass motor made of tungsten heavy metal as well as in cars with tungsten based elements in electronics, window heating system, tire studs and vibration damping in diesel engines using crankshafts made of high-density tungsten heavy metal. It is likely that the ballpoint pen you use to write with contains tungsten carbide balls and it is also possible that your dentist uses tungsten based drilling tools.

Zinc

Zinc is a naturally occurring, lustrous, bluish-white metallic element. Commonly it appears dull in many applications although in some it has a silvery appearance. It is the 24th most common element in the earth’s crust and it is essential for human growth (e.g. zinc deficiency in humans can cause birth defects, lead to delayed healing, cause skin irritation and loss of the sense of taste, to name a few). Zinc prevents rusting or corrosion of steel when applied as a protective surface coating by galvanising (electro-plating). Corroding steel loses surface flakes that detach and expose more steel to corrosion. Coating steel with zinc oxide provides a continuous surface layer that protects steel from corrosion. Zinc is also very malleable, making it an easy mineral to cast into many shapes.

Uses of zinc in our daily life

Zinc has many uses! It is perhaps most commonly known for it’s use in sun-screen lotions but it can also be used to combat colds, as an antiseptic ointment, in calamine lotion and anti-dandruff shampooed.

Its main uses are: galvanizing (50%); die-casting (17%); brass making (17%); miscellaneous (16%) such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, paint and coinage.

The information on this page is based on the texts from the book 'Minerals in your life' published by EuroGeoSurveys in 2014. We would like to thank our colleagues from EuroGeoSurveys for this valuable source of information.