Carbonate Minerals

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Calcium carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo (c) 2007 Andrew Alden, licesned to

Generally the carbonate minerals are found at or near the surface. They represent the Earth's largest storehouse of carbon. They all are on the soft side, from hardness 3 to 4 on the Mohs hardness scale.

Every serious rockhound and geologist takes a little vial of hydrochloric acid into the field, just to deal with the carbonates. The carbonate minerals shown here react differently to the acid test, as follows:

Aragonite bubbles strongly in cold acid
Calcite bubbles strongly in cold acid
Cerussite does not react (it bubbles in nitric acid)
Dolomite bubbles weakly in cold acid, strongly in hot acid
Magnesite bubbles only in hot acid
Malachite bubbles strongly in cold acid
Rhodochrosite bubbles weakly in cold acid, strongly in hot acid
Siderite bubbles only in hot acid
Smithsonite bubbles only in hot acid
Witherite bubbles strongly in cold acid

Aragonite is calcium carbonate (CaCO3), with the same chemical formula as calcite, but its carbonate ions are packed differently. (more below)

Aragonite and calcite are polymorphs of calcium carbonate. It is harder than calcite (3.5 to 4, rather than 3, on the Mohs scale) and somewhat denser, but like calcite it responds to weak acid by vigorous bubbling. You may pronounce it a-RAG-onite or AR-agonite, though the majority of American geologists use the first pronunciation. It is named for Aragon, in Spain, where notable crystals occur.

Aragonite occurs in two distinct places. This crystal cluster is from a pocket in a Moroccan lava bed, where it formed at high pressure and relatively low temperature. Likewise, aragonite occurs in greenstone during the metamorphism of deep-sea basaltic rocks. At surface conditions, aragonite is actually metastable, and heating it to 400°C will make it revert to calcite. The other point of interest about these crystals is that they are multiple twins that make these pseudo-hexagons. Single aragonite crystals are shaped more like tablets or prisms.

The second major occurrence of aragonite is in the carbonate shells of sea life. Chemical conditions in seawater, notably the concentration of magnesium, favor aragonite over calcite in seashells, but that changes over geologic time. Whereas today we have "aragonite seas," the Cretaceous Period was an extreme "calcite sea" in which the calcite shells of plankton formed thick deposits of chalk. This subject is of great interest to many specialists.

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Calcium carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo (c) 2009 Andrew Alden, licensed to (fair use policy)

Calcite, calcium carbonate or CaCO3, is so common that it's considered a rock-forming mineral. More carbon is held in calcite than anywhere else. (more below)

Calcite is used to define hardness 3 in the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. Your fingernail is about hardness 2½, so you can't scratch calcite. It usually forms dull-white, sugary-looking grains but may take on other pale colors. If its hardness and its appearance aren't enough to identify calcite, the acid test, in which cold dilute hydrochloric acid (or white vinegar) produces bubbles of carbon dioxide on the mineral's surface, is the definitive test.

Calcite is a very common mineral in many different geologic settings; it makes up most limestone and marble, and it forms most cavestone formations like stalactites. Often calcite is the gangue mineral, or worthless part, of ore rocks. But clear pieces like this "Iceland spar" specimen are less common. Iceland spar is named after classic occurrences in Iceland, where fine calcite specimens can be found as big as your head.

This is not a true crystal, but a cleavage fragment. Calcite is said to have rhombohedral cleavage, because each of its faces is a rhombus, or warped rectangle in which none of the corners are square. When it forms true crystals, calcite takes platy or spiky shapes that give it the common name "dogtooth spar."

If you look through a piece of calcite, objects behind the specimen are offset and doubled. The offset is due to refraction of the light traveling through the crystal, just as a stick appears to bend when you stick it partway into water. The doubling is due to the fact that light is refracted differently in different directions within the crystal. Calcite is the classic example of double refraction, but it's not that rare in other minerals.

Very often calcite is fluorescent under a black light.

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Lead carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo courtesy Chris Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Cerussite is lead carbonate, PbCO3. It forms by weathering of the lead mineral galena and may be clear or gray. It also occurs in massive (noncrystalline) form.

Other Diagenetic Minerals

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Calcium-magnesium carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo (c) 2009 Andrew Alden, licensed to (fair use policy)

Dolomite, CaMg(CO3)2, is common enough to be considered a rock-forming mineral. It is formed underground by alteration of calcite. (more below)

Many deposits of limestone are altered to some extent into dolomite rock. The details are still a subject of research. Dolomite also occurs in some bodies of serpentinite, which are rich in magnesium. It forms at the Earth's surface in a few very unusual places marked by high salinity and extreme alkaline conditions.

Dolomite is harder than calcite (Mohs hardness 4). It often has a light pinkish color, and if it forms crystals these often have a curved shape. It commonly has a pearly luster. The crystal shape and luster may reflect the atomic structure of the mineral, in which two cations of very different sizes—magnesium and calcium—place stress on the crystal lattice. However, commonly the two minerals appear so much alike that the acid test is the only quick way to distinguish them. You can see the rhombohedral cleavage of dolomite in the center of this specimen, which is typical of carbonate minerals.

Rock that is primarily dolomite is sometimes called dolostone, but "dolomite" or "dolomite rock" are preferred names. In fact, the rock dolomite was named before the mineral that composes it.

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Magnesium carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo courtesy Krzysztof Pietras via Wikimedia Commons

Magnesite is magnesium carbonate, MgCO3. This dull white mass is its usual appearance; the tongue sticks to it. It rarely occurs in clear crystals like calcite.

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Copper carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo courtesy Ra'ike via Wikimedia Commons

Malachite is hydrated copper carbonate, Cu2(CO3)(OH)2. (more below)

Malachite forms in the upper, oxidized parts of copper deposits and commonly has a botryoidal habit. The intense green color is typical of copper (although chromium, nickel and iron also account for green mineral colors). It bubbles with cold acid, showing malachite to be a carbonate.

You'll usually see malachite in rock shops and in ornamental objects, where its strong color and concentric banded structure produce a very picturesque effect. This specimen shows a more massive habit than the typical botryoidal habit that mineral collectors and carvers fancy. Malachite never forms crystals of any size.

The blue mineral azurite, Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2, commonly accompanies malachite.

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Manganese carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to (fair use policy)

Rhodochrosite is a cousin of calcite, but where calcite has calcium, rhodochrosite has manganese (MnCO3). (more below)

Rhodochrosite is also called raspberry spar. The manganese content gives it a rosy pink color, even in its rare clear crystals. This specimen displays the mineral in its banded habit, but it also takes the botryoidal habit (see them in the Gallery of Mineral Habits). The crystals of rhodochrosite are mostly microscopic. Rhodochrosite is far more common at rock and mineral shows than it is in nature.

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Iron carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo courtesy Geology Forum member Fantus1ca, all rights reserved

Siderite is iron carbonate, FeCO3. It's common in ore veins with its cousins calcite, magnesite and rhodochrosite. It may be clear but is usually brown.

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Zinc carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo courtesy Jeff Albert of under Creative Commons licence

Smithsonite, zinc carbonate or ZnCO3, is a popular collectible mineral with a variety of colors and forms. Most often it occurs as earthy white "dry-bone ore."

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Barium carbonate
Carbonate Minerals. Photo courtesy Dave Dyet via Wikimedia Commons

Witherite is barium carbonate, BaCO3. Witherite is rare because it easily alters to the sulfate mineral barite. Its high density is distinctive.