Carbon Mineral Challenge
Tucson Gem and Mineral Show
UA Department of Geosciences
Deep Carbon Observatory
University of Arizona geoscientists are part of the Carbon Mineral Challenge, which calls on amateur and professional mineral collectors to hunt for new carbon-based minerals.
To help mineral enthusiasts from the community get started in the challenge, UA geosciences researchers will join their Carbon Mineral Challenge colleagues at the program’s booth at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The booth will be at the Tucson Convention Center, Thursday through Sunday.
"We encourage anyone interested to come to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show to talk to us and pick up some free materials that will help them get started on the challenge," said Barbara Lafuente, UA geosciences doctoral candidate and Carbon Mineral Challenge team member. "We’re excited to connect with the mineral collecting community and discover some new minerals together."
Lafuente works on the UA Department of Geosciences’ open-access mineralogical database, the RRUFF Project. Data from the project was used to predict that there are 145 yet-undiscovered carbon minerals.
The graphite used as pencil lead, the calcite that makes up sea shells, and diamonds are some of the 406 carbon minerals currently known to mineralogists.
Scientists are particularly interested in carbon minerals, because carbon is necessary for life on Earth. Any new carbon minerals people discover will expand our understanding of Earth’s unique composition.
Up until now, minerals have been discovered primarily by chance. The Carbon Mineral Challenge’s targeted search is an entirely new approach to mineral discovery. The challenge is sponsored by the Deep Carbon Observatory based at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
"There is the potential to find carbon minerals as interesting or even more interesting than the ones we know," Lafuente said. "We hope that we’ll discover a few carbon minerals we didn’t predict that will surprise us and tell us something new about the chemistry of carbon and the array of environments possible on Earth."
Robert Downs, UA professor of geosciences, curator of the UA Mineral Museum and member of the Carbon Mineral Challenge advisory board, said, "With the data we have from the RRUFF Project, we started seeing statistical trends. The first thing we realized is that minerals have a distribution that is mathematically similar to the distribution of words in a book."
Statistics-based prediction models already are used for things such as predicting or identifying words that are used by a particular writer. Until now, these models have not been applied to mineralogy.
"Part of the Carbon Mineral Challenge is to put this predicting to the test," said Downs, lead investigator on the RRUFF Project. "Can we find things that we otherwise didn’t know we’d find?"
UA Department of Geosciences researchers, laboratories and the department’s UA Mineral Museum are providing expertise in analyzing samples submitted during the challenge.
Daniel Hummer of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and principal investigator of the challenge, said, "To find, characterize and verify the minerals, we want to be able to do a variety of tests in an efficient and conclusive way. Robert Downs’ lab is perfectly set up for this: That’s what they specialize in.
"If we find carbon in combination with different elements or bonding in ways that we hadn’t known of before, that will tell us something more about the Earth and how it has evolved over time," Hummer said.
The Carbon Mineral Challenge will continue until September 2019. The Deep Carbon Observatory will publicly recognize each discovery as it happens and celebrate the final suite of newly discovered carbon minerals at the culmination of its program in late 2019.