2184 Atomic-scale phenomena | Natural History Museum

Atomic-scale phenomena

Diegogattaite mineral structure

Diegogattaite mineral structure.

Principal Investigator

Project summary

  • Focus: characterising new minerals with potential applications in materials science

We are using a range of techniques to characterise new minerals and investigate their potential for use in materials science.

We are using X-ray diffraction techniques to characterise minerals, many of which are new to science and have direct applications in materials technology.

We study two kinds of new mineral species:

  • Compositional variants of known-structure topologies, usually rock-forming minerals.
  • Completely new structure topologies, often rare non-rock-forming minerals.

Advances in X-ray diffractometry are allowing us to obtain structural data for very small crystals <0.05mm and other previously challenging materials.

The characterisation of new mineral species requires close collaboration with curators and use of the Museum's mineral collections and equipment. 

New technologies

The structures and/or compositions of some new mineral species have potential applications in materials science, including:

  • nano- or microporous sieves or ion exchangers
  • fast-ion conductors
  • piezo-electric devices
  • photosensors

Read more about two recent examples of technologically relevant new minerals below.


Diegogattaite is a new mineral species with potential applications in ion- and gas-exchange and catalysis.

Diegogattaite is a nanoporous copper sheet silicate closely related to synthetic nanoporous copper silicates used in ion- and gas-exchange and catalysis.

Chemical formula: Na2CaCu2Si8O20·H2O

Learn more about the atomic structure of diegogattaite (PDF 344K)


Diegogattaite structure.


Paratacamite-herbertsmithite group

As natural examples of frustrated antiferromagnets (Kagome-magnets), minerals of the paratacamite group have major applications in quantum data storage and battery technology. 

We are studying:

  • herbertsmithite and kapellasite (paratacamite-group minerals): Cu3Zn(OH)6Cl2
  • haydeeite: Cu3Mg(OH)6Cl2

These minerals are natural examples of perfect spin-½ frustrated antiferromagnets in which an antiferromagnetic state is prevented by an ordered arrangement of non-magnetic elements (Zn and Mg) within the polyhedral structure. 

Such structures, known as Kagome phases, are significant for understanding 'quantum spin glasses'. 

This new magnetically frustrated state has many potential applications, including:

  • high-temperature superconductors
  • data storage
  • 'quantum-entangled' batteries as a new power source greatly superior to lithium-based batteries
The atomic structure of herbertsmithite

The atomic structure of herbertsmithite.


We have discovered a novel reversible temperature-dependent transition (Tc ~ 380 K) between the paratacamite (2a R-3trigonal superstructure) and herbertsmithite (1a R-3m substructure) that involves the operation of a rare dynamic Jahn-Teller distortion of the mixed Cu-Zn interlayer sites. 

We are evaluating the significance of this transitional behaviour for herbertsmithite and kapellasite by examining recently discovered paratacamite species in which the substituent divalent cation varies (Ni, Co, Mg).

Museum staff

  • 000D Dr Mark Welch 1C84

Our research

Atomic scale phenomena can alter the properties of minerals and affect their thermodynamic and kinetic stability in the natural world. We study the impact of atomic scale phenomena on mineral properties, including:

  • physical properties
  • crystallisation
  • reactivity
  • rheology
  • microstructures
  • transformations, including mineral-biota interactions

Origins, evolution and futures

We study the Earth's origins, environment and the evolution of life.

Mineral and planetary sciences research

Investigating the origins and evolution of Earth and our solar system.

Mineral collection

The collection is one of the most important and comprehensive collections of its type in the world.