Composition of rocks

March 19, 2012, 9:59 pm
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Hematite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)

Table 1: Common elements found
in the Earth's rocks.
Element Chemical
Symbol
Percent Weight in
Earth's Crust
Oxygen O 46.60
Silicon Si 27.72
Aluminum Al 8.13
Iron Fe 5.00
Calcium Ca 3.63
Sodium Na 2.83
Potassium K 2.59
Magnesium Mg 2.09

A rock can be defined as a solid substance that occurs naturally because of the effects of three basic geological processes: magma solidification; sedimentation of weathered rock debris; and metamorphism. As a result of these processes, three main types of rock occur:

  • Igneous rocks - produced by solidification of molten magma from the mantle. Magma that solidifies at the Earth's surface conceives extrusive or volcanic igneous rocks. When magma cools and solidifies beneath the surface of the Earth intrusive or plutonic igneous rocks are formed.
  • Sedimentary rocks - formed by burial, compression, and chemical modification of deposited weathered rock debris or sediments at the Earth's surface.
  • Metamorphic rocks - created when existing rock is chemically or physically modified by intense heat or pressure.

Most rocks are composed of minerals. Minerals are defined by geologists as naturally occurring inorganic solids that have a crystalline structure and a distinct chemical composition. Of course, the minerals found in the Earth's rocks are produced by a variety of different arrangements of chemical elements. A list of the eight most common elements making up the minerals found in the Earth's rocks is described in Table 1.

Over 2000 minerals have been identified by earth scientists. Table 2 describes some of the important minerals, their chemical composition, and classifies them in one of nine groups. The Elements Group includes over one hundred known minerals. Many of the minerals in this class are composed of only one element. Geologists sometimes subdivide this group into metal and nonmetal categories. Gold, silver, and copper are examples of metals. The elements sulfur and carbon produce the minerals sulfur, diamonds, and graphite which are nonmetallic.

caption Silver (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Copper (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Graphite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)


The sulfides are an economically important class of minerals. Many of these minerals consist of metallic elements in chemical combination with the element sulfur. Most ores of important metals such as mercury (cinnabar - HgS), iron (pyrite - FeS2), and lead (galena - PbS) are extracted from sulfides. Many of the sulfide minerals are recognized by their metallic luster.

The halides are a group of minerals whose principle chemical constituents are fluorine, chlorine, iodine, and bromine. Many of them are very soluble in water. Halides also tend to have a highly ordered molecular structure and a high degree of symmetry. The most well-known mineral of this group is halite (NaCl) or rock salt.

caption Pyrite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Galena (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Halite or rock salt (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)


The oxides are a group of minerals that are compounds of one or more metallic elements combined with oxygen, water, or hydroxyl (OH). The minerals in this mineral group show the greatest variations of physical properties. Some are hard, others soft. Some have a metallic luster, some are clear and transparent. Some representative oxide minerals include corundum, cuprite, and hematite.

caption Corundum (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Hematite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)


The carbonates consists of minerals which contain one or more metallic elements chemically associated with the compound CO3. Most carbonates are lightly colored and transparent when relatively pure. All carbonates are soft and brittle. Carbonates also effervesce when exposed to warm hydrochloric acid. Most geologists considered the Nitrates and Borates as subcategories of the carbonates. Some common carbonate minerals include calcite, dolomite, and malachite.

The sulfates are a mineral group that contain one or more metallic element in combination with the sulfate compound SO4. All sulfates are transparent to translucent and soft. Most are heavy and some are soluble in water. Rarer sulfates exist containing substitutions for the sulfate compound. For example, in the chromates SO4 is replaced by the compound CrO4. Two common sulfates are anhydrite and gypsum.

caption Calcite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Dolomite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Gypsum (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)


The phosphates are a group of minerals of one or more metallic elements chemically associated with the phosphate compound PO4. The phosphates are often classified together with the arsenate, vanadate, tungstate, and molybdate minerals. One common phosphate mineral is apatite. Most phosphates are heavy but soft. They are usually brittle and occur in small crystals or compact aggregates.

The silicates are by far the largest group of minerals. Chemically, these minerals contain varying amounts of silicon and oxygen. It is easy to distinguish silicate minerals from other groups, but difficult to identify individual minerals within this group. None are completely opaque. Most are light in weight. The construction component of all silicates is the tetrahedron. A tetrahedon is a chemical structure where a silicon atom is joined by four oxygen atoms (SiO4). Some representative minerals include albite, augite, beryl, biotite, hornblende, microcline, muscovite, olivine, othoclase, and quartz.

caption Albite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Biotite (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Hornblende (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)

 

caption Olivine (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Orthoclase (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)
caption Orthoclase (Source: PhysicalGeography.net)


The organic minerals are a rare group of minerals chemically containing hydrocarbons. Most geologists do not classify these substances as true minerals. Note that our original definition of a mineral excludes organic substances. However, some organic substances that are found naturally on the Earth that exist as crystals that resemble and act like true minerals. These substances are called organic minerals. Amber is a good example of an organic mineral.

Table 2: Classification of some of the important minerals found in rocks.
Group Typical Minerals Chemistry
Elements Gold Au
Silver Ag
Copper Cu
Carbon (Diamond and Graphite) C
Sulfur S
Sulfides Cinnabar HgS
Galena PBS
Pyrite FeS2
Halides Fluorite CaF2
Halite NaCl
Oxides Corundum Al2O3
Cuprite Cu2O
Hematite Fe2O3
Carbonates
(Nitrates and Borates)
Calcite CaCO3
Dolomite CaMg(CO3)2
Malachite Cu2(CO3)(OH)2
Sulfates Anhydrite CaSO4
Gypsum CaSO4 -2(H2O)
Phosphates (Arsenates,
Vanadates, Tungstates,
and Molybdates)
Apatite Ca5(F,Cl,OH)(PO4)
Silicates Albite NaAlSi3O8
Augite (Ca, Na)(Mg, Fe, Al)(Al, Si)2O6
Beryl Be3Al2(SiO3)6
Biotite K (FE, Mg)3AlSi3O10(F, OH)2
Hornblende Ca2(Mg, Fe, Al)5(Al, Si)8O22(OH)2
Microcline KAlSi3O8
Muscovite KAl2(AlSi3O10)(F, OH)2
Olivine (Mg, Fe)2SiO4
Orthoclase KAlSi3O8
Quartz SiO2
Organics Amber C10H16O

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Further Reading

Glossary

Citation

Pidwirny, M. (2012). Composition of rocks. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/151406

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