Native Element Copper

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Cara M. Santelli, Ph.D.

Dr. Cara Santelli visits a cave in eastern Tennessee (USA) to take samples of fungi that live in subterranean environments.

Photo by Sarah Carmichael, Appalachian State University

Dr. Cara Santelli is a research geologist and curator with the Department of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Santelli grew up on the “Iron Range” of northeastern Minnesota, a region famous for its banded-iron formations. As a child, she loved digging in the dirt outdoors and bringing home pockets full of rocks, each of which was unique and beautiful. She always knew she wanted to be a scientist or engineer, but did not realize that her future lay in geology until she took a mineralogy course as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. In 2007, Santelli earned a doctorate in marine geomicrobiology through a joint program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and she joined the Smithsonian staff in 2010. She studies the impact of microbial activity on mineral formation, rock-weathering processes, and remediation of contaminated environments. One of the biggest thrills of her career was her dive 2.4 km (1.5 miles) underneath the Pacific Ocean in the deep-submergence vehicle Alvin. She still comes home from field excursions with pockets full of rocks.

Meet our associated expert

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.

Related Resources
Modern copper cable
Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto (WikiCommons)

Minerals in Electrical Technology

About 200 years ago, scientists studying electricity realized that metals allowed electrical currents to flow through them much more easily than most nonmetals. Because of its relative abundance, high electrical conductivity, and malleability (or ability to be shaped), copper has become the standard material for electrical wiring and switching. Certain types of low-iron silicates, such as muscovite and pyrophyllite, are naturally occurring electrical insulators. Glass or porcelain insulators, made from such minerals as quartz and feldspar, keep high-voltage power-transmission lines from touching their poles. Pyrolusite is the naturally occurring mineral version of manganese oxide, which is inside every non-rechargeable alkaline battery. Gasoline-powered articles start their engines with a jolt of electricity from lead-acid batteries, which get their lead from the mineral galena. Other rechargeable batteries contain nickel, cadmium, or other metals, found in a variety of ores.