Scientists Say: Mineral | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Mineral

These are solid elements or compounds that form a crystal structure and occur naturally in the Earth
Aug 19, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
a photo of a green emerald

This emerald is a form of a mineral called beryl, which is made of several different chemical elements.

 rep0rter/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Mineral (noun, “MIN-er-all”)

Minerals are elements or compounds that, in their solid form, have a crystal structure. Diamonds and table salt are good examples. Minerals occur naturally in the Earth. 

They can be made of just one element. A bar of gold, for example, is made of many atoms of the element gold. But minerals can also be chemical compounds. This means they are made two or more elements. Quartz is one example. This mineral is made from one silicon atom and two oxygen atoms. The atoms that make up a mineral form a crystal — a repeating, three-dimensional pattern. People encounter these crystals whenever they pick up a piece of quartz, for example. Or when they put salt on their food.

Most rocks are made of minerals, often several types of minerals smashed together. But not all rocks. Coal, for example, is a rock. But it’s not a mineral. It’s not made up of identical repeating chemicals and the repeating crystal structure of a mineral can’t form.

In a sentence

Scientists can measure radioactive elements in minerals to find out how much time has passed since that mineral formed.

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Power Words

(more about Power Words)

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

compound     (often used as a synonym for chemical) A compound is a substance formed when two or more chemical elements unite (bond) in fixed proportions. For example, water is a compound made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

crystal     (adj. crystalline) A solid consisting of a symmetrical, ordered, three-dimensional arrangement of atoms or molecules. It’s the organized structure taken by most minerals. Apatite, for example, forms six-sided crystals. The mineral crystals that make up rock are usually too small to be seen with the unaided eye.

element     A building block of some larger structure. (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.

mineral     Crystal-forming substances that make up rock, such as quartz, apatite or various carbonates. Most rocks contain several different minerals mish-mashed together. A mineral usually is solid and stable at room temperatures and has a specific formula, or recipe (with atoms occurring in certain proportions) and a specific crystalline structure (meaning that its atoms are organized in regular three-dimensional patterns). (in physiology) The same chemicals that are needed by the body to make and feed tissues to maintain health.

oxygen     A gas that makes up about 21 percent of Earth's atmosphere. All animals and many microorganisms need oxygen to fuel their growth (and metabolism).

quartz     A type of mineral made from silicon dioxide. The most common mineral on Earth, it can occur in any rock type: igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary.

radioactive     An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.

salt     A compound made by combining an acid with a base (in a reaction that also creates water). The ocean contains many different salts — collectively called “sea salt.” Common table salt is a made of sodium and chlorine.

silicon     A nonmetal, semiconducting element used in making electronic circuits. Pure silicon exists in a shiny, dark-gray crystalline form and as a shapeless powder.

solid     Firm and stable in shape; not liquid or gaseous.