When oxygen interacts with some metals, it causes an oxidation reaction that results in what is known as a secondary mineral: iron oxide, or rust. Similarly, when oxygen interacts with uranium, an oxidation reaction occurs that, when mixed with other elements, can also create secondary minerals. Three such minerals never before spotted have been found in the Red Canyon region of Utah growing on the walls of old uranium mines.
The new minerals were found by Travis Olds, a Michican Tech alumnus now studying the uranium-based minerals called uranyl compounds as a graduate student at Notre Dame. He made the discoveries over the course of the past 18 months, and is currently seeking approval from the International Mineralogical Association (IMA), the governing body responsible for such things.
The first has been dubbed "leesite" and is pictured above.
"Though small and barely visible to the naked eye, leesite occurs in bright yellow aggregates of stacked blades or radiating needles up to one millimeter in length," says a Michigan Tech story about the find. "The mineral also forms powdery masses nestled against a backdrop of companion minerals, most notably gypsum."
Olds says that leesite is something of a sandwich at the atomic level with sheets of uranyl oxide and hydroxyl atoms serving as the bread, and potassium – the element that sets leesite apart from other uranyls – serving as the filling.
The new mineral has been classified as belonging to the schoepite family, a class of minerals often referred to as "gummites" by miners as they tend to gum up the floors of mine shafts with their sticky consistency. It is named after Bryan Lees of Collector's Edge Minerals.
The second mineral is called leószilárdite, and is named after Dr. Leó Szilárd (1898-1964), the Hungarian-American physicist, inventor, and biologist who, among other things, first conceived of the nuclear chain reaction.
Leószilárdite is a pale yellow crystal with blade-like protrusions that fluoresce green beneath ultraviolet light. It's also hard to spot with the naked eye, but under the scanning electron microscope, Olds says the structure becomes clear. Carbon is bound in this version of the uranium mineral which held significance to Olds because he was able to enter it in the Carbon Mineral Challenge, which is an effort by the Deep Carbon Observatory to discover as many new carbon-based minerals as possible.
Leószilárdite is water soluable so if it was attempting to form in another region of the country that was more humid than the arid climate found in the Red Canyon region of Utah, it might never have been found.
The final mineral is called redcanyonite, for obvious reasons. It contains manganese and ammonium, which gives it a reddish-orange tint.
"Redcanyonite is one of the rarest uranyl minerals known because it can only grow within narrow constraints: access to manganese ions is the main driver, but it also can only form in organic-rich layers, the most likely source of ammonium," says Michigan Tech.
Since the discovery of the three minerals, Olds has been working to have them approved by the IMA, which is a lengthy process. For example, even though leesite was found in 2015, it took the IMA until late last year to approve it, so it could only be described in a paper in September 2016. Olds told New Atlas that he thinks the paper about leószilárdite will come out mid-year and the other on leesite will be published in late 2017.