Sedimentary Rock Banded Iron

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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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Measuring cup made of borosilicate, a glass resistant to thermal expansion
Photo by Daniel P.B. Smith

Minerals in Glass and Ceramics

Since antiquity, humans have made pottery from clay, which consists of fine particles of silicate minerals. Kaolinite is an aluminum silicate mineral, and it is the main component of porcelain, a particularly hard type of ceramic. Clay, which is used to make other types of pottery, may contain silica and grains from sedimentary rocks. Quartz, also referred to as silica or silicon dioxide, is a key component of another important solid material: glass. In the ancient Middle East, humans made glass by heating silica with alkali that was made from the ashes of plants. Other minerals such as calcium, lead, calcium, and manganese were added to improve the glass. Metals and metallic oxides were also added to color the glass or to make it clear, since natural glass tends to be slightly colored from impurities in the sand. Ruby red is made from powdered gold, while an orangey-red is produced by copper oxides. If the glass with copper oxide is heated too much, it will turn green. Cobalt and iron can make blue glass, and manganese is used for purple. Antimony or manganese oxide will produce clear glass. Glass for specialized purposes, like cookware and optical instruments, may require additives, such as boron oxide or lead oxide.

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Sample of ilmenite, a source of titanium dioxide
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Pigments, Paints, and Makeup

When some minerals are ground into powders, they may be used as pigments, solid substances that change the color of the materials they are mixed with. The first pigments, known since prehistoric times, were iron oxides, which make warm, dark reds and browns. Other early pigments were made of lead, carbon (in charcoal form), malachite, and azurite. Today's paints may contain synthetic dyes in addition to natural pigments and fillers such as calcium carbonate, mica, silica, talc, and titanium dioxide. Minerals have been used as ingredients in facial makeup at least since the days of ancient Egypt, when women painted their eyes with kohl, a mixture containing finely ground galena, or lead sulfide. Modern-day cosmetics manufacturers avoid hazardous substances like lead and arsenic, but many of their products contain microscopic particles of minerals and their derivatives such as iron oxide (from goethite and other minerals), titanium dioxide (usually from ilmenite), talc, mica, and kaolinite.