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A team of Chinese scientists have designed a new method to measure the density of material to determine the structure of many rare earth minerals from samples taken from underground geology labs.
The method uses the atomic force microscope (AFM) on which the researchers carried out their study by imaging samples from mineral-filled underground chambers, where large rocks with high mineral content were placed.
The measurements, reported in the journal Earth Sciences, could help to predict the mineral properties of rare earth materials to improve the properties of some advanced materials.
One of the most important types of minerals, rare earths are used in electrical, electronic, heat, and water-conducting materials – as well as many other materials – and are required for most electronic applications.
The problem with analyzing rare earths is that only a handful of these elements are known in great quantity from their elemental abundances in Earth’s crust. Only a handful could possibly have been in minerals taken from deep under Earth’s surface.
The new method works by comparing the material samples with a reference map of the earth. This gives much more accurate results than would be obtainable using just the chemical composition of the mineral.
For the measurement, scientists used a new computer model of the earth that they developed which is able to detect the presence of rare earth elements and the specific structures of rare earths to provide a numerical representation of the minerals in geology samples.
In the new study, the scientists analyzed a variety of materials from mineral-filled underground chambers, which were taken from different parts of China over the last two decades over a 10-year period. The specimens were from the Hualong mountain site and those from Sichuan.
Some of the minerals were extracted in the same way and used in the present study. The rest were obtained from underground geology labs and were not treated any differently.
They analyzed the chemical composition of