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Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Brian Meinhardt
A Pyrite's Life For Me
Credit photo: John Zander
The mineral pyrite,
also known as iron pyrite (or the more saddening name to many a miner “fools
gold”) is a useful and, in my opinion, particularly enjoyable mineral to
observe. The word pyrite
comes from the Greek word pyr, meaning “fire”, and is named so because
emits sparks when struck by steel. Pyrite can be found all over
the world, but in the United States it is most abundant in
Illinois and Missouri. Pictured is a great
representation of what you can expect to see in a pyrite crystal structure.
Pyrite is in the
class of minerals called sulfides and is one of the most abundant minerals in
its class. Pyrite is a brassy-gold color with a metallic luster, and its streak
is a greenish-black. The hardness of pyrite, according to Mohs Scale of Hardness
ranges from a 6 to a 6.5. Pyrite crystals are most often found in the form of a
cube (as opposed to marcasite which is
picture I have illustrated shows the schematic representation (feS2=iron
sulfide) where blue=iron and yellow=sulfur that belongs to pyrite.
Credit photo: Brian Meinhardt Credit photo: www.wikipedia.com
Believe it or not, the mineral pyrite does not start out as pyrite. Pyrite originates from the mineral marcasite. These two minerals are almost identical in appearance, and have the same chemistry. However, they have different symmetry and crystal shapes, which makes pyrite a pseudomorph of marcasite. The main difference between the two minerals, in terms of usability, is that marcasite can crumble and pyrite is stable.
Pyrite has several
economical uses. Personally, I have found only three that are of any substantial
use at present day, as well as one possible (and not so efficient) use if the
future demands it. First, the possible future use of pyrite would be the
commercial need of iron ore. If and when, other, more concentrated minerals rich
in iron ore are depleted, pyrite may be the answer. However, because pyrite is
not an efficient or significant source of iron ore, it is not being used as of
The next use of
pyrite commercially, is in jewelry (in some cases, very elegant and classical
jewelry). In fact, pyrites use in jewelry is not a new idea or practice. The
first recorded use of pyrite in jewelry was during the reign of Louis XIV of
France between the years of 1643 and 1715 to make
distinguished belt buckles and brooches. Today, when pyrite is used in
jewelry it is often referenced under its trade name as “marcasite”, which is
similar, as was mentioned earlier, but is not the exact same mineral. I believe
the use of this trade name is due to the idea that “marcasite” sounds more
valuable than “pyrite” or “fools gold”.
Credit photos: www.ebay.com
The third mentionable
use for pyrite is creating sulfur dioxide.
dioxide kills yeasts, molds, and bacteria,
and is also used in preserving dried fruits while allowing them to
retain their original color. Sulfur dioxide
is also an important chemical in the paper making process. When you combine
sulfur dioxide with water and oxygen it naturally produces the next commercial
use of pyrite, which is the production of sulfuric acid.
Sulfuric acid has
large commercial value due to its highly corrosive properties. However, newer,
more efficient methods of harvesting sulfuric acid with different materials have
reduced the use of pyrite for this process, due to pyrite being just a minor ore
for the acid. One down side to pyrites ease of conversion to sulfuric acid (in
small amounts), is that it can occur naturally. When being mined, for example,
pyrite can be exposed to the elements and sulfuric acid is naturally created. In
a mine, this is called acid mine drainage. As with all drainage of water, it
will reach streams and/or rivers, usually turning them a milky-red, which is due
to the iron content in sulfides like pyrite. This occurrence is devastating to
rivers and all aquatic life within those rivers. Also, it contaminates the
water, making it unfit for human consumption.
Earlier I discussed how pyrite is a pseudomorph of marcasite. I
have found that, just as pyrite began its life as marcasite, it does not always
end its life as pyrite. Just over a week ago, I was hiking in the Huachuca
Mountains and found several very small dark brown cubes approx. 2-5 mm in width.
The largest was in bad shape and could no longer be called a cube, but the
second largest had a width of 1cm and was a perfect, undisrupted cube. After a
long period of research I narrowed it down to pyrite or galena. Both have
square crystals, with the major difference being that galena is a lead ore and
pyrite is an iron ore. I brought the specimens into my physical geology class
where my teacher, Roger Weller, with no hesitation identified it as limonite,
pseudomorphed from pyrite. Basically, what has happened is that hydrated iron
oxide minerals replace the pyrite, and it is then called limonite. Which
obviously declares that limonite is not actually a mineral, but a grouping of
minerals. When I discovered that this cube originated as pyrite I was
particularly excited, since pyrite is the topic of this report. Pictured are
photographs taken of the cubes I found in the Huachuca’s. From the photos you
can see their sizes, as well as their particularly high metallic luster (a
characteristic passed on from the pyrite).
Credit photos: Brian Meinhardt
Credit photo: Brian Meinhardt
In conclusion, pyrite
is a useful and beautiful mineral, like so many other minerals on our planet,
and it was a pleasure sharing it with you.
Credit photo: www.wikipedia.com
2.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrite photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License.
3.) http://mineral.galleries.com/minerals/sulfides/pyrite/pyrite.htm Jon Zander GFDL and CC-by-SA-2.5. See Below
4.) skywalker.cochise.edu/.../pyrite/pyriteL.htm R. Weller/Cochise College