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Superman beware, kryptonite is real

24 April 2007

A new mineral matching kryptonite's unique chemistry, as described in the film Superman Returns, has been identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum and Canada's National Research Council.

The large green crystals of kryptonite have a devasting affect on the superhero. However, unlike its famous counterpart, the new mineral is white, powdery and not radioactive. And, rather than coming from outer space, the real kryptonite was found in Serbia.

Geologists and mineralogists from mining group Rio Tinto discovered the unusual mineral. It didn't match anything known previously to science so they sort the help of mineral expert Dr Chris Stanley at the Natural History Museum.

Mike Rumsey, mineralogist, inspects a piece of jadarite.

Mike Rumsey, mineralogist, inspects a piece of jadarite.

'Towards the end of my research,' says Dr Stanley, 'I searched the web using the mineral's chemical formula, sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide , and was amazed to discover that same scientific name written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luther from a museum in the film Superman Returns'.

'The new mineral does not contain fluorine and is white rather than green, but in all other respects the chemistry matches that for the rock containing kryptonite. We will have to be careful with it - we wouldn't want to deprive Earth of its most famous superhero!'

The mineral could be used as a source of lithium , which has many uses including in batteries, or as a source of borate, which is used for cleaning, also known as borax.

New mineral discoveries

Approximately 30-40 new mineral species are discovered each year. It is very unusual to find a new mineral in this quantity. New minerals generally come in the form of a few grains only visable under the microscope, but this one has several centimetres of dril core as well as a few bags of fragments.

Before it can be classified as new, a mineral's chemical properties must be rigorously tested, including its crystal structure. The crystals of the new mineral were too small to be tested through standard techniques. So Dr Stanley used the sophisticated analytical facilities at Canada's National Research Council (NRC) and the expertise of its researchers, Dr Pamela Whitfield and Dr Yvon Le Page. 

Crystal structure
Fragments of the new mineral Jadarite.

Fragments of the new mineral Jadarite.

'Knowing a material's crystal structure means scientists can calculate other physical properties of the material such as its elasticity or thermochemical properties,' explains Yvon Le Page, an expert in the field of crystallography at the NRC.

'Being able to analyse all the properties of a mineral, both chemical and physical, brings us closer to confirming that it is indeed unique.'

'Finding out that the chemical composition of a material is an exact match to an invented formula for the fictitious kryptonite, was the coincidence of a lifetime,' he adds.

Naming new minerals

New minerals must be registered with the International Mineralogical Association, the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification. It compares new material against a vast database of all known minerals, to see if the newly discovered rock is genuinely unique.

Official name Jadarite

Additionally, scientists from Natural Resources Canada, the Geological Survey of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Nature have collaborated to ensure that the new mineral is recognised by the international scientific community. 

The mineral will be formally named Jadarite when it is described in the European Journal of Mineralogy later this year.

See for yourself

Join scientists as they reveal the new mineral in the Natural History Museum's free Nature Live events, one tomorrow, Wednesday 25 April at 12.30 and one on Sunday 13 May at 12.30 and 14.30.

Mineral curator, Mike Rumsey, talks about how the new mineral was identified as kryptonite in the video linked below.

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