Minerals form when atoms bond together in a crystalline arrangement. Three main ways this occurs in nature are:
- Precipitation directly from an aqueous (water) solution with a temperature change
- Crystallization from a magma with a temperature change
- Biological precipitation by the action of organisms
3.2.1: Precipitation from Aqueous Solution
Solutions consist of ions or molecules, known as solutes, dissolved in a medium or solvent. In nature, this solvent is usually water. Many minerals can be dissolved in water, such as halite or table salt, which has the composition sodium chloride, NaCl. The Na+1 and Cl-1 ions separate and disperse into the solution.
Precipitation is the reverse process, in which ions in solution come together to form solid minerals. Precipitation is dependent on the concentration of ions in solution and other factors such as temperature and pressure. The point at which a solvent cannot hold any more solute is called saturation. Precipitation can occur when the temperature of the solution falls, when the solute evaporates, or with changing chemical conditions in the solution. An example of precipitation in our homes is when water evaporates and leaves behind a rind of minerals on faucets, showerheads, and drinking glasses.
In nature, changes in environmental conditions may cause the minerals dissolved in water to form bonds and grow into crystals or cement grains of sediment together. In Utah, deposits of tufa formed from mineral-rich springs that emerged into the ice age Lake Bonneville. Now exposed in dry valleys, this porous tufa was a natural insulation used by pioneers to build their homes with a natural protection against summer heat and winter cold. The travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone Park are another example formed by calcite precipitation at the edges of the shallow spring-fed ponds.
Another example of precipitation occurs in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, where the concentration of sodium chloride and other salts is nearly eight times greater than in the world’s oceans . Streams carry salt ions into the lake from the surrounding mountains. With no other outlet, the water in the lake evaporates and the concentration of salt increases until saturation is reached and the minerals precipitate out as sediments. Similar salt deposits include halite and other precipitates, and occur in other lakes like Mono Lake in California and the Dead Sea.
3.2.2: Crystallization from Magma
Heat is energy that causes atoms in substances to vibrate. Temperature is a measure of the intensity of the vibration. If the vibrations are violent enough, chemical bonds are broken and the crystals melt releasing the ions into the melt. Magma is molten rock with freely moving ions. When magma is emplaced at depth or extruded onto the surface (then called lava), it starts to cool and mineral crystals can form.
3.2.3: Precipitation by Organisms
Many organisms build bones, shells, and body coverings by extracting ions from water and precipitating minerals biologically. The most common mineral precipitated by organisms is calcite, or calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Calcite is often precipitated by organisms as a polymorph called aragonite. Polymorphs are crystals with the same chemical formula but different crystal structures. Marine invertebrates such as corals and clams precipitate aragonite or calcite for their shells and structures. Upon death, their hard parts accumulate on the ocean floor as sediments and eventually may become the sedimentary rock limestone. Though limestone can form inorganically, the vast majority is formed by this biological process. Another example is marine organisms called radiolaria, which are zooplankton that precipitates silica for their microscopic external shells. When the organisms die, the shells accumulate on the ocean floor and can form the sedimentary rock chert. An example of biologic precipitation from the vertebrate world is bone, which is composed mostly of a type of apatite, a mineral in the phosphate group. The apatite found in bones contains calcium and water in its structure and is called hydroxycarbonate apatite, Ca5(PO4)3(OH). As mentioned above, such substances are not technically minerals until the organism dies and these hard parts become fossils.