Geologist Discovers Three New Minerals

On a geological expedition along the windswept slopes of the Larsemann Hills in Antarctica, UMaine geologist Edward Grew collected samples of the area’s unique rock formations that would later reveal three minerals previously unknown to science. The minerals, stornesite-(Y), chopinite and tassieite, are extremely rare and represented only by microscopic samples collected by Grew.

The unique mineralogy of the Larsemann Hills, located on the eastern shore of Prydz Bay in Princess Elizabeth Land, inspired Grew and his fellow researcher Chris Carson (now at Geoscience Australia) to make the four-month expedition in 2003 – 2004, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and made possible by the Australian Antarctic Division.

Grew and his colleagues identified and characterized the minerals using cutting edge technologies. Martin Yates used the powerful electron microprobe at UMaine to image the new minerals and measure their chemical compositions. Next, the minerals were sent to Olaf Medenbach at the Ruhr University (Bochum, Germany) and Thomas Armbruster at the University of Bern (Switzerland), who determined the new minerals’ optical properties and crystal structures, respectively. Then Grew submitted a complete dataset for each mineral to a special commission of the International Mineralogical Association, which formally approved them as valid new species. Grew has discovered a total of ten new minerals, and sees each as an opportunity to expand scientific understanding of the Earth and its complex geological processes.

“When new minerals are identified, some have little significance, and some end up being tremendously important,” said Grew. “They all tell us something about how rocks form. Ultimately, discoveries like these contribute to our understanding of the origin of rocks, plate tectonics and other processes, and give us valuable insights into temperature, pressure and other conditions within the Earth at different points of its history.”

Geologist discovers Martian mineral

Geology professor Ron Peterson discovered natural crystals in a frozen BC pond similar to ones that he grew in his garage -- and are also believed to exist on Mars. - Photo Courtesy: Ron Peterson
Geology professor Ron Peterson discovered natural crystals in a frozen BC pond similar to ones that he grew in his garage — and are also believed to exist on Mars. – Photo Courtesy: Ron Peterson

A Queen’s University researcher’s surprising discovery – made first in his garage and later verified through field work – has resulted in the naming of a new mineral species that may exist on Mars, and has caught the attention of the NASA space program.

Geologist Ron Peterson’s findings will be reported in the October issue of the journal, American Mineralogist. Dr. Peterson, who was invited to Houston last fall to present his original findings at the Johnson Space Center, continues to work with NASA scientists on Mars research.

The new mineral, meridianiite, is unusual because it is a planetary mineral and also thought to exist on the moons of Jupiter.

Also on the research team are Bruce Madu from the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, Queen’s Chemistry Professor Herb Shurvell, and high school student Will Nelson, from Ascroft, B.C.

The Queen’s discovery was inspired by information sent back from Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover (MER), Opportunity, indicating that magnesium sulfate is present on that planet’s surface. The rover also sent back photographs of voids in rocks that are thought to have originally contained crystals.

This supports the team’s theory that regions of Mars were once covered with water, which later froze and then evaporated, leaving a residue of crystal molds in the sediment.

Based on these observations, in the winter of 2005, Dr. Peterson left a solution of drugstore epsom salts (hydrated magnesium sulfate) to crystallize in his unheated garage for several days. He then rushed the frozen crystals to a Queen’s chemistry lab, where experiments showed them to be an unusual form of magnesium sulfate that displayed some of the same properties reported earlier by Mars rovers.

Dr. Peterson wondered whether the same mineral might be found on Earth. In the fall of 2006 he located some ponds near Ashcroft in the Okanagan Valley of B.C., from which magnesium sulfate had once been mined. He then enlisted the help of a local high-school chemistry student to send him mineral samples from the ponds, by mail, throughout the fall.

In February 2007 Dr. Peterson visited the frozen ponds himself, and brought back crystals in a cooler packed with dry ice. These natural crystals were put through a series of tests, and in June meridianiite was approved as a new valid mineral species by the Commission on New Mineral names and Mineral Nomenclature of the International Mineralogical Association.

-The name was chosen to reflect the locality on Mars where a rover had observed crystal molds in sedimentary rock that are thought to be caused by minerals that have since dehydrated or dissolved,- says Dr. Peterson. -Observations obtained by using the rover wheels to dig trenches into the Martian soil show that magnesium sulfate minerals have been deposited below the surface.-

Between 20 and 30 new minerals are identified each year, the researcher notes, but -these often involve rare elements.- Meridianiite, on the other hand, is formed from the common materials magnesium, sulfate and water.

A geologist who normally studies mine waste, Dr. Peterson admits he has been a -space geek- since childhood, and says that working on this project has been exciting. -It began with a moment of insight – based on my previous geological experience – and now I have the chance to collaborate with experts from around the world who are studying the geology of the Martian surface.-