Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology
Mike Jollands

Mike Jollands

Mike Jollands is an experimental petrologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He studies the diffusion and substitution mechanisms of trace elements, making use of high temperature and pressure equipment to simulate volcanic and mantle conditions.

#mineralmonday: tiptopite

#mineralmonday: tiptopite

#mineralmonday: your weekly* dose of obscure mineralogy, every Monday** [*not guaranteed; **or possibly Tuesday-Sunday]

tiptopite. Source:

What is it? Tiptopite: K2Na1.5Ca0.5Li3Be6(PO4)6(OH)2•(H2O)

What’s it made of?  Take a deep breath and recite after me: potassium, sodium, calcium, lithium, beryllium, phosphorus, oxygen and water (H2O).

Is it pretty? Yes, it’s a beautiful fibrous mineral. You wouldn’t put it on jewelry though, or even in your pocket, or you’ll end up with needles and dust.

Wikipedia defines ‘tip top’ as ‘a slang phrase which means of the highest order or excellent’. Is this true for this mineral? Not really, it doesn’t have any real use (we are more interested in the minerals that it is associated with, like beryl), is only found in one place (the ‘Tip Top’ mine in South Dakota), and only in some isolated areas in that mine. This mine was opened during world war 2 for strategic reasons, but then shut down again in the 1950s.

Beryllium metal. Not exactly a silver lining, but a shiny grey lining… source:

Strategic mining you say? Presumably this was for mining dragon glass? Or maybe I’m mixing up my wars. Yes you are thinking of an earlier war. Dragons and white walkers were long extinct by the 1950s. This particular mine was for beryllium (the Be in the formula).

That sounds berylliant. What’s it for? Nothing fun, unfortunately. Beryllium has a useful property of being a neutron emitter and an alpha particle absorber. This makes it really useful as part of the triggering device of thermonuclear weapons. It also makes beryllium quite difficult to buy…

Is there a silver lining? Nope! Beryllium even has a couple of conditions named after it: berylliosis and acute beryllium poisoning. Luckily it’s hardly ever used these days, and the risks are well known.

It seems calling it ‘tip top’ was a little optimistic…

Do you have a favourite obscure mineral? Want to write about it? Contact us and give it a go!

#mineralmonday : sengierite

#mineralmonday : sengierite

#mineralmonday: your weekly* dose of obscure mineralogy, every Monday** [*not guaranteed; **or possibly Tuesday-Sunday]

What is it? Sengierite: Cu2(UO2)2V2O8.6(H2O)

What’s it made of? A few useful metals – copper (Cu), vanadium (V), uranium (U), plus oxygen (O) and water (H2O).

So by ‘useful’ you mean ‘radioactive’? Pretty much. The main reason people have been interested in this kind of mineral is the (very radioactive) uranium, which is important for nuclear power and military uses. The copper (not radioactive) is also useful though – this is a secondary mineral that is often found in mines where copper and uranium are extracted together.

Sengierite, from Leon Hupperichs via

Secondary mineral? Like second class? That seems harsh. Basically, primary minerals are the ones that form when the rock is forming in the first place, so if the rock is crystallising from a liquid or magma, the minerals that form at that point are primary. If this rock then gets weathered, or maybe some water passes through it, new minerals can sometimes form – these are the secondary minerals.

I see, so it’s more like an caterpillar becoming a beautiful butterfly? Something like that. These secondary minerals are often hydrous, meaning they have water explicitly in their structure. That doesn’t mean the mineral is just wet, but rather there is a specific place for the water in the lattice of atoms. You can see this is the case for sengierite because of the 6(H2O) at the end of the formula.

So is it pretty? Absolutely. This one is a beautiful bottle green to apple green colour. It also has what we call a vitreous to adamantine lustre (lustre describes how light interacts with the mineral – vitreous is kind of like glass, adamantine is like a diamond). Probably best to avoid radioactive crystals for use in jewelery though…

Do you have a favourite obscure mineral? Want to write about it? Contact us and give it a go!

Are mantle melts heterogeneous on a centimeter scale?

Are mantle melts heterogeneous on a centimeter scale?

The mantle makes up the majority of the volume of the Earth, but there is still a lot about it that we don’t understand. This is because we can’t observe it directly – forget ‘Journey to the center of the Earth’ – even our deepest drill holes (about 12 km deep) are merely tickling the surface of the planet (about 6400 km to the center).

The journey to the centre of the Earth, by Édouard Riou (it’s not that easy). Source:

Most of what we know about the mantle comes from secondary sources of information. For example, we can use magmas (liquid rock, which later become lavas when they erupt), which form when the mantle melts slightly. When these erupt onto the Earth’s surface, they bring with them some information about the rock (the mantle) from which they formed. This is just like how our DNA can tell us something (but not everything) about our parents. So by analysing the magma, we can start to piece together what the mantle was like where it formed. The problem here is that magmas are liquid, and can easily mix with other magmas, so the original information gets lost.

One thing we do know about the mantle, though, is it is not the same everywhere, it is heterogeneous. Some of the differences might be left over from four and a half billion years ago when the planet formed, others are due to rocks from the surface being pushed down into the Earth. The question is the scale of this heterogeneity –  is it heterogenous on the scale of hundreds of thousands of kilometers, kilometers, tens of meters, or even smaller?

The drill used to sample the rocks. Open your mouth and say ‘aaahh’. Credit: Sarah Lambart

A new perspective comes from a team from Cardiff University and the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, led by Sarah Lambart (now at the University of Utah), and published in Nature Geoscience. The team took samples drilled from below the bottom of the North Atlantic ocean, and from these they extracted some minerals – clinopyroxene and plagioclase. These were selected as the most primitive minerals – that means the ones that formed first from a magma, and so they should most closely mirror the melt’s composition. From these millimeter sized crystals, they drilled out tiny samples of powder (the drill is a lot like a dentist’s drill, but with less fear and pain), which were then dissolved and analysed, to measure the concentration of some different isotopes (the same element, with different mass) of strontium and neodymium.

What they found was startling – these tiny samples were extremely variable in their isotopic compositions. The range was so big that it represented almost the whole variability of the North Atlantic – a whole ocean-sized range of chemistry in samples totalling about the size of a grain of rice. This implies that the mantle is able to preserve heterogeneous melts over a scale that is far smaller than previously thought. So, why do we not see this in the erupted lavas? Because they get mixed up, and the tiny variations are lost – this mixing has to happen somewhere between the site from where the crystals were sampled, and the sea floor.

So what’s next? Sarah says the answer might lie in experiments. By recreating the conditions of mantle melting, and simulating the movement of melt through solid rocks, we might be able to understand better how such tiny scale variations can be preserved in the mantle and then be completely lost by the time the melts erupt onto the ocean floor.

#mineralmonday : lithiophilite

#mineralmonday : lithiophilite

What is it? Lithiophilite, LiMnPO4

What’s it made of? Lithium (Li), manganese (Mn), phosphorus (P) and oxygen (O). The PO4 at the end of the formula makes this a phosphate mineral (phosphorus + oxygen = phosphate).

Lithiophilite crystals (the crystals that look blackish). From Rob Lavinsky, via

What’s it’s structure? The way the different atoms are arranged in lithiophilite is described as orthorhombic, which means the crystal is built of lots of tiny cuboid-shaped atomic meshes (we call these individual building blocks unit cells). The mineral olivine, which makes up most of the top 440 km of the Earth, is also orthorhombic (shout out to olivine-my favourite mineral-which unfortunately is far too common for #mineralmonday).

Is it useful? Not directly. It’s far too rare to mine for lithium, the useful part of the mineral. But, if we swap out the manganese (Mn) for iron (Fe), we get another mineral called triphylite (LiFePO4), which can be grown in the lab, and is a battery material with some potential applications in electric cars and bikes.

How can a crystal be a battery? A battery is basically just a material that can provide a flow of electrons. This means that something in the battery needs to oxidise (oxidation means loss of electrons, and a gain of positive charge). The iron in the LiFePO4 can oxidise, similar to how pieces of iron will rust (oxidise) over time. It’s basically the lithium, which can move around in, and out of, the mineral, that makes this possible.

MG electric concept car, powered by a LiFePO4 battery. From jwhite65 via

What is it named after? It’s a mineral that really really likes lithium, so I guess we could describe it as a lithiophile (filos, filia etc. being Greek for friend). So it’s a friend of lithium, which is convenient because it’s made of it. Just to keep things confusing, we also have the word ‘lithophile‘ in geology, which more or less means an element that concentrates in the rocks we find on the Earth’s surface (lithos = stone, in Greek again). And to round it off, the element lithium was also named after lithos, because it was originally found in rocks.

It seems like they could have used another word. But at least lithium and lithiophilite were both discovered in Greece, right? That would make sense… But no, lithium was discovered in Sweden and lithiophilite in the USA. But, they were both found in the 1800s before, so let’s not be judgemental…

Do you have a favourite obscure mineral? Want to write about it? Contact us and give it a go!