Mineral Nomenclature: Naming New Minerals
by Alan R. Plante, Gorham, NH.


Most of us have come across things in the field, or later at home when we've sorted through our rocks, which have made us scratch our head in wonder over what they might be. And every now and then we come across something which all our efforts fail to identify, leaving us saying "Hummmm?" - and wondering if we might actually have something that's never been identified and named before. It might be - but between the point of wondering if it is something new and the point at which it becomes accepted as a new mineral lies a long road of research and double- and triple-checking to make sure the mystery mineral at hand is not actually one of the over four thousand known species of minerals. Much more often than not our find will prove to be just something we haven't seen before, but which science has, and has cataloged as "known." But every now and then a find turns out to be something new...

Naming something newly discovered is not a job to be taken lightly. It needs to be done with all due care - and with respect for all the work that has taken place before we came along and found whatever it is we just found. And, to start with, we have to find out - with 100% certainty - if, in fact, what we have is really something new. So we have to start with understanding what a "mineral" is.

The Definition of a "Mineral":

In 1995 International Mineralogical Association's (IMA) "Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification" (CNMMN) issued an updated definition for what constitutes a "mineral." This update appeared in the form of a paper by Dr. Ernest H. Nickel, titled "The Definition of a Mineral," which was published in The Canadian Mineralogist, vol. 33. Dr. Nickel was, at that time, vice-chairman of the CNMMN. While the paper was two pages long, the actual definition took only a single sentence:

"In general terms, a mineral is an element or chemical compound that is normally crystalline and that has been formed as a result of geological processes."

Let me highlight the key elements of that sentence: "an element or chemical compound," "normally crystalline," and "geological processes."

Note that the phrase "normally crystalline" does NOT exclude non-crystalline substances, such as opal. Note also that the phrase "geological processes" pretty much excludes anything resulting from biological processes (such as pearls and coral) or made by *homo sapiens*.

Dr. Nickels spends most of the rest of the paper discussing the fine points of the definition, but the bottom line is that the definition given above is pretty straight-forward and self-explanatory. Quartz is a "mineral" because it is crystalline silicon dioxide (a chemical compound) that has been produced as a result of geologic processes. (When we produce a Trigonal crystal of silicon dioxide in a lab it is not "quartz" - but rather the "synthetic equivalent of quartz." Same for other lab-grown crystals which have naturally occurring counterparts.) Diamond is a "mineral" because it is an element that has been crystallized by geologic processes. Opal, while not "crystalline" in the normal sense, is a "mineral" as well - because numerous studies have shown it to be a chemical compound of a homogenous nature formed by geological processes; even though it is not crystalline it is not a "mixture" or a "rock" - because it is homogenous in nature. (Granite, on the other hand, is not a "mineral" because it is composed of more than one crystalline chemical compound - more than one "mineral." It is not homogenous. Granite, by definition, is a "rock.")

Things start to get sticky, though, when we are dealing with geologically produced elements or chemical compounds that are similar or identical in composition but different in their crystal structure. Diamond and graphite are both the element carbon, but in diamond the atoms of carbon are arranged in a framework fashion that results in Isometric crystals, often taking an outwardly octahedral shape, with extremely strong bonds between all of the atoms; while in graphite the carbons are arranged in layers of hexagonally positioned atoms with the electrochemical bonds between layers being very weak. So while both are "minerals" they are each afforded their own status as "species" of mineral. Such minerals are said to be "polymorphs" of one another - meaning that while their chemistry is the same their crystal forms are different. A similar situation exists with the minerals calcite and aragonite: Both are crystalline calcium carbonate, but the structural arrangement of the components are different - thus calcite manifests itself as Trigonal crystals, while aragonite manifests itself as Orthorhombic crystals; two more polymorphs of one another. (Things get a whole lot stickier when we get into a category of structural variations known as "polytypes" - as opposed to "polymorphs." The issue is, though, rather complicated, so we would do best to leave it to the crystallographers to deal with. Suffice it to say that at present polytpes of a specific composition are not afforded separate species status.)

Proposing a New Mineral Species:

In order for a possible new mineral species to become accepted as "valid" by the scientific community a proposal must be submitted to the IMA's "Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature, and Crystallography" (CNMNC - the new name, as of 2006, for the previous CNMMN.) This proposal must provide specific information on the chemistry and crystallography of the substance, as well as information on the geologic setting in which it was found, and the proposed name for the substance. The Commission provides researchers with a checklist for new mineral proposals, and in 1998 the then-CNMMN issued a paper titled "Procedures and guidelines on mineral nomenclature", written by Drs. Ernest Nickel and Joel Grice, published in The Canadian Mineralogist, vol. 36. This paper provides detailed guidelines for researchers to follow in determining whether or not they have found a new species, and for writing up their proposal if they believe they have. Suffice it to say that in order to have a possible new mineral validated by the Commission you are going to have to jump through a long line of technical hoops - providing a detailed chemical and structural analysis that clearly proves the substance to be one that has not been previously described. In short, you're going to need a mineralogical laboratory and know how to use it, or hitch up with someone who has a lab at their disposal and is willing and able to work with you. Working up a new species proposal is not something you can accomplish in your home workshop - unless you just happen to have things like ion microprobes and X-ray diffraction instruments in your basement. :~}

Publishing a New Mineral Name and Description:

If all goes well in the lab and with the Commission, and you find that you do, indeed, have a new mineral species at hand there is one more step you have to take in order to make it "official": The Commission requires that you publish the description and name of the new species within two years of your proposal being accepted. After that you either have to obtain an extension from the Commission - or lose your priority for naming the new species. Someone else could submit a new proposal with a different name and have their proposal approved - and get it published. This rule is a matter of timeliness in science: The primary reason for any scientific research is to increase our knowledge and understanding of things. It is of no value to science to have someone discover something new and then not share the discovery with others. And in the field of mineralogy this means publishing the descriptions of new minerals in a timely fashion. "Snooze, you loose!" :~}

"But What If It's Just a New 'Variety'?"

Okay, let's say that what you found turned out to be a new form of some previously known mineral. Can you give it an "official" name? In a nutshell, no. The stamp of officialdom ends with naming species. Nicknames, trade names, and "varietal names" are outside the scope of the IMA and the CNMNC - the Commission does not entertain proposals for such names. In fact, the Commission, and the IMA in general, discourages the coining of such names and their use because they tend to be confusing and often have no real scientific value. (See: "Changes In Mineral Nomenclature: Varieties" by this author, posted here at Bob's Rock Shop.) Naming a new deposit of agate after someone or its locality may be handy in describing it among lapidary artisans, but it does not add to the body of scientific knowledge. Likewise, giving a new color variation of a known mineral species - say a Garnet Group species - a name is not necessary for scientific purposes. It might help with marketing the new find - but that has nothing to do with the advancement of science. Even a uniquely new crystal habit for a known species doesn't warrant a new "varietal name" - as crystallography has other methods/criteria for noting such things; it doesn't take another name.

Basically, if you want to name a new variation of a known species you are free to do so - but the action will not be sanctioned by the IMA, nor will it be considered of scientific value. It may help rockhounds in talking about rocks and minerals from here and there, but it won't advance the science of mineralogy. In fact, if you choose to coin a new name that ends in the "ite" used for mineral species' names, you will have taken science backwards a step - because your new name then becomes one of the already far too many names ending in "ite" that can be confused with valid species' names. Increasing confusion is hardly a benefit to science. It is best, therefore, to think in terms of *nicknames* if you feel strongly that something should have a name - and coin one that does not end in "ite." At least this way you can distinguish your new form of, or color for, a mineral without adding confusion to the mineralogical nomenclature. The scientists will thank you for that.

Suggested Reading:

Nickel, Ernest H. (1995), The definition of a mineral, Canadian Mineralogist, v. 33.
Nickel, Ernest H., and Grice, Joel D. (1998), Procedures and guidelines on mineral nomenclature, The Canadian Mineralogist, v. 36.
Plante, Alan R. (2006), Changes In Mineral Nomenclature: Varieties, Bob's Rock Shop website, rockhounds.com.

Copyright © 2006 by Alan R. Plante. Not to be used or stored by any means without my written permission.

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