Recently, graduate student Travis Olds from Notre Dame discovered three new minerals while he was exploring old uranium mines in Utah. The names of the three new minerals are leesite, leószilárdite and redcanyonite, and are all new compounds of uranium and other components. This allowed researchers to study how different forms of uranium can propagate in their natural environment.
In the early 1950’s, during the Cold War, mining for uranium was the main industry that became a boom in Utah. The Salt Lake City was known a the “Wall Street of Uranium Stocks”, and the state’s lax financial securities laws allowed for exploration companies to mine, while many many weren’t able to produce even a bit of uranium.
In the 70’s, the mining for uranium in Utah dried up, but the mines still persisted. They tried to provide the necessary conditions for these three new minerals to form.
Leesite, one of the minerals that Olds found, looks like uranium rust. It looks like tiny, bright yellow prickly needles. When looked at on an atomic level, leesite piles up in stacks of uranium and oxide layers. Its composition includes potassium, which distinguishes it as an entirely new mineral.
Leószilárdite on the other hand, is pale yellow. According to Old, “If you look at leószilárdite in a picture, you can kind of pick out that they have an unusual shape. But put them under the SEM (scanning electron microscope) and it’s obvious.” This mineral is formed when uranium ore interacts with oxygen. This means that there is a concrete chance that the uranium mining industries have increased the amount of leószilárdite that exists in the world.
Redcanyonite is the rarest of all the minerals that Old has found. Its very scarce due to all the specific requirements for its growth. The need for manganese ions is necessary for the growth of this mineral, and redcanyonite is only able to form in organic-rich layers that produce ammonium.