Oxide Mineral Tantalite

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Jeffrey E. Post, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Post

Photograph by Cara Santelli, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Jeffrey Post is the curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. As far back as he can remember in childhood, Post collected rocks and fossils around his home near Madison, Wis. The symmetry of mineral crystals fascinated him, and experiments with a large chemistry set helped develop his interest in science. He earned a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in 1981 and joined the Smithsonian in 1984. Post’s research projects include the physical and chemical properties of fine-grained, environmentally significant minerals such as clays, manganese oxides, and iron oxides. He also uses powerful X-ray beams at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, N.Y.) to study the crystal structures of these minerals. With his Smithsonian colleagues, Post is always seeking new gem and mineral acquisitions for the Smithsonian. He analyzes specimens to resolve curatorial questions, oversees loans of Smithsonian gems to other museums, supervises the team that is building the collection website, meets with donors, and answers public inquiries about the Smithsonian mineral collection.

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Foliated mica (variety: muscovite) with an embedded hexagonal crystal of quartz
Photo courtesy of iRocks.com/The Arkenstone

Crystal Shapes and Crystal Habits

Inside a mineral, atoms arrange themselves into a specific, repeating pattern called a crystal lattice or crystal structure. The smallest three-dimensional arrangement within the lattice is called a "unit cell," which is duplicated over and over again symmetrically. At the level of the everyday world, minerals that are growing without outside interference tend to form crystals that resemble their underlying crystal structures. Scientists call that kind of general, typical appearance a "crystal habit." Of course, conditions that existed during a mineral's formation or crystal growth may change its habit, but geologists still find this attribute to be a useful tool for identifying minerals. Scientists use more than three dozen adjectives to describe crystal habits. For example, natrolite and rutile can be acicular, or needlelike; quartz often forms hexagonal prisms; pyrite and halite typically crystallize as cubes; and mica is foliated or lamellar (layered).

Fluorite specimens, different colors, cut as gemstones
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Mineral Sciences

The Colors of Minerals

One of the most striking, yet least diagnostic, features of many minerals is their color. Well-formed mineral crystals span the entire rainbow of tinctures, from red (cinnabar, garnet) to yellow (sulfur), green (malachite), blue (azurite, lazurite), and violet (the amethyst variety of quartz). Minerals containing iron and magnesium are often dark brown or dark green. Impurities, trace amounts of elements that do not normally belong in the mineral, may change the overall color of a crystal. For instance, depending on the trace amounts of impurities it contains, quartz may look colorless (no impurities), light pink (titanium, iron, or manganese), milky white (tiny bubbles of gas or liquid), purple (iron), yellow (iron), or brown (extra silicon). However, multiple minerals may have almost the same color, so scientists must rely on other physical properties to make definite identifications of mineral specimens.

Spodumene, an ore of lithium, from Huntington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, USA
Photo by www.iRocks.com

Minerals in Advanced Technology

Certain rare elements such as beryllium, tantalum, lithium, and yttrium occur in small quantities scattered around the world, rather than in rich mineral veins that are easy to mine. The economic importance of these elements, however, has grown substantially over the past few decades, as scientists and engineers have found new ways to use them. For example, tantalum, found primarily in the mineral tantalite, helps miniaturize the electronic components inside computers, gaming consoles, and cell phones. Lithium powers those portable devices by making batteries last longer. Beryllium, found in more than 100 minerals, goes into lightweight structural components of fighter jets, guided missiles, and spacecraft. When added to diesel fuel, cerium lowers the noxious emissions from trucks. Gallium and indium, two elements that are considered electrical semiconductors, go into light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Yttrium is a key ingredient in medical lasers. For example, the mineral bastnasite (or bastnaesite), which contains cerium, lanthanum, and yttrium, was discovered in Sweden and occurs. The economic importance of these elements, however, has grown substantially over the past few decades, as scientists have put them into many high-tech devices. Cerium added to diesel fuel helps trucks run with fewer noxious emissions; scandium, alloyed with aluminum and other metals, makes lightweight lacrosse sticks and components for fighter jets; yttrium is a key ingredient in medical lasers.