The University of Arizona's Mineral Museum recently received the largest collection of minerals ever donated to the museum, which is part of UA's department of geosciences. One of the world's most significant single donations of research minerals, the collection may help identify rocks on Mars.
The donation of more than 8,000 samples is eight times larger than any other gift of minerals to the museum. It includes approximately 1,000 species the museum did not previously own.
"This is a great collection that contains exactly the sorts of samples that are so valuable to science," said Robert Downs, UA professor of geosciences and UA Mineral Museum curator.
The collection, donated by Rock Currier of Arcadia, Calif., is valued at $500,000.
The donated minerals will be used primarily as research samples in the RRUFF project, which is creating a database of the characteristics of all known mineral species. Downs started the project with funding from Mike Scott, the founding president of Apple.
Having new minerals to study greatly expands the RRUFF database and increases its value to science. The database will allow scientists and the general public to identify minerals – both on Earth and as part of planetary exploration.
The project characterizes minerals using a technique called Raman spectrometry, which does not require destructive sampling. Once the RRUFF project has the signature of a mineral in its database, a detection device can identify a rock or mineral just by comparing its Raman "fingerprint" with ones already in the database.
Eventually, minerals will be identifiable by just waving a device over the rock or soil. A Raman instrument designed by the European Space Agency is going to Mars on the European Space Agency mission called ExoMars in 2018. The scientists controlling this Raman instrument will be using the RRUFF database to help identify minerals on Mars. A second Raman instrument is currently being designed by NASA. Downs is a collaborator with the design team for NASA's instrument.
Downs and Currier share a love of both the aesthetics and the science of minerals. They met about 20 years ago in Tucson, where Currier comes every February to attend the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Downs, also a co-investigator on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover project, stays at Currier's home during his trips to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Currier learned about the RRUFF project and the UA Mineral Museum from Downs and decided to make his gift.
Currier is a longtime wholesale mineral dealer. He has run numerous worldwide expeditions, amassing a systematic collection of minerals over the course of his career. Currier's interest in minerals began with his first job at Borax, where he worked in their chemical control laboratory at the open-pit borate mine and refinery at Boron, Calif.. At that point, he said, "Borate minerals became my passion, the first of many."
After 10 years, Currier decided to give the minerals business a try.
"I talked a buddy into going on a trip to India to hunt for zeolite specimens," he said. "In 1972 I left with a $500 round-trip plane ticket and $1,000 in my pocket, half of which was borrowed. I got a big pile of zeolite specimens."
This first trip to India was followed by many more, as well as trips to South America, Asia and Africa to find specimens for his wholesale business that continues today.
Downs says, "It all fits together. The minerals that Rock donated will become part of the RRUFF database, which we use to compare, identify, and characterize the minerals we find on Mars."
The UA Mineral Museum, owned by UA's department of geosciences, is located in Flandrau Science Center on the UA campus. The museum houses minerals for research as well as mineral displays that are open to the public.