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A new mineral species has been discovered amongst the Natural History Museum’s geological collections by a group of NHM scientists with help from colleagues at the Diamond Lightsource and Slovakia.
The specimen, probably collected in the 1700’s, has, it turns out, been masquerading as a green variety of the traditionally blue liroconite for centuries.
The new mineral, which has been named kernowite after the Cornish name for Cornwall where the mineral was found, became part of the Museum collections in 1964. However, it was not until recently when project lead Mike Rumsey, principal curator of minerals, decided to investigate colour variation in liroconite that led to it being recognised as a species new to science.
Mike explains, ‘To show we have a new species, we must carry out analyses which determine the chemical composition of the material, the positions of these atoms within three-dimensional crystal structure. Broadly speaking, if either or both of these features are unique the mineral is new’
‘Although many liroconites are greenish, with this unusually dark-green ‘liroconite’ specimen in question my colleagues and I discovered a subtle difference in its chemistry. Overall, one part of its internal structure was dominated by iron instead of aluminium, so we found it worthy of a new name, kernowite.’
Whist over one hundred new mineral species are discovered globally each year, it is rarer for such a discovery to come from the UK, where on average a new mineral is only discovered about every three or four years.
Cornwall, where this mineral is exclusively found, is one of the world’s most famous areas for mining and minerals and has been named a UNESCO world heritage site for this.
Mike adds, ‘Considering how many geologists, prospectors and collectors have scoured the county over the centuries in search of mineral treasure it’s amazing that in 2020 we are adding a new mineral.’
The discovery is made all the more special as Liroconite, the ‘sister’ mineral to the newly named kernowite, is one of the most famous species to come from the county because of its striking blue colour.
Kernowite is what is known as a secondary mineral due to the way it has been formed. It is formed when other rocks, close to the surface of the earth have had their chemical elements mobilised by circulating water. The elements now present within the fluid re-combine to create a new mineral from different elements of previously crystalised rock. It is not always possible to date the formation of a secondary mineral and many likely have a short ‘life’ due to being subject to erosion.
For now, kernowite may remain extremely rare as Mike explains, ‘The specimen we have was excavated from a mine that was closed around a 100 years ago and the ground has since been built upon, so unless this mineral turns up in another location it will only ever be known from an extremely limited number of specimens likely stored unknowingly in various collections around the world.’
‘The discovery of this mineral once again highlights the importance of the Natural History Museum collections and the research that is done on them. Although Kernowite has no obvious direct application, all newly found minerals build upon our understanding of materials generally. Earth’s natural laboratory provides a rich source of diverse minerals, many of which have no synthetic equivalents. As such, Nature can provide the inspiration for the discovery of new hi-tech materials. By adding to a collective knowledge, with new discoveries like kernowite we lay the foundations for future breakthroughs that could help people and the planet thrive.’
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The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.
It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.
The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.
The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.