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What’s the Difference Between Rocks, Crystals, and Minerals?
Is a mineral a crystal or is a crystal a mineral? Rocks, crystals and minerals. What is the difference?
Before explaining the differences between minerals, crystals and rocks, you must know the difference between an element and a compound.
What is an element?
A group of atoms of the same nature forms an element. The elements are listed on the periodic table, and you’ve heard of them: gold, silver, copper, sulfur, oxygen, and carbon. The chemical formula of an element is just the element. The most common elements in the earth’s crust are: O for Oxygen (about 47%), Si for Silicon (about 28%), Al for Aluminum (about 8%), Fe for Iron (about 5%), Ca for Calcium , Na for sodium, K for potassium and Mg for magnesium.
What is a compound?
Compounds, on the other hand, consist of molecules containing different types of elements. For example, table salt contains sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). Sodium chloride is a molecule and a set of sodium chloride molecules form a compound. The chemical formula of sodium chloride is NaCl. (Note that there are two different items listed in this formula.)
Now that you know which elements are compounds, you can understand the definition of a mineral.
What are minerals?
Minerals are made up of compounds. Table salt is a mineral with the formula NaCl. Epsom salts are a mineral with the chemical formula MgSO4. Minerals have a definite and fixed chemical formula.
Minerals are solids. Liquids are not minerals, so even though water is not a mineral, snowflakes are.
Minerals are made by inorganic processes. Minerals are made by natural processes, such as the cooling of magma underground, precipitation, and condensation. Minerals are not made inside living organisms. So, feldspar is a mineral, but a kidney stone, even though it has a consistent chemical formula, is not a mineral.
Minerals are made up of molecules in a repeating pattern, called a lattice. Mineral molecules join together in repeating patterns. Common patterns are cubic, tetragonal, hexagonal, monoclinic, orthorhombic, trigonal, and triclinic.
Crystals are a special type of mineral.
Crystals are a special type of mineral. They are a subset of minerals. So while all crystals (not made by biological processes) are minerals, not all minerals are crystals. Crystals are minerals that have flat faces that meet at regular angles. Lots of geologic time and room to “grow” are needed for large, beautiful crystals to form.
Rocks are composites of one or more different minerals. For example, granite is a rock. It does not have a uniform structure. It is a mush, usually composed of feldspar, quartz and mica. You can usually look at a piece of granite and see black mica, pink feldspar, and white quartz.
That old Venn diagram
So if you imagine a Venn diagram (circles inside circles), the smallest circle corresponds to crystals, because crystals are a special case of minerals. The circle of Crystals is fully enclosed within the circle of Minerals, and the circle of Minerals is fully enclosed within the circle of Rocks.
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