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Where do minerals come from?

Minerals can be found throughout the world in the earth's crust but usually in such small amounts that they not worth extracting. Only with the help of certain geological processes are minerals concentrated into economically viable deposits. Mineral deposits can only be extracted where they are found.

Mineral deposits come in many shapes and sizes depending on where and how the mineral was concentrated. Minerals are concentrated by igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic processes:

Deposit type: Igneous

When liquid magma cools it crystallizes to form an igneous rock composed of a variety of different minerals.

 

 

Deposit type: Sedimentary

The different physical properties of minerals, such as their size or density, affect their behaviour in the surface weathering environment. Gold, for example, is very heavy so may collect in a stream bed, whereas lighter material is washed away. Mineral sands, such as titanium minerals, may be sorted by waves to form deposits on beaches. Various minerals such as calcium carbonate, salt and gypsum may be precipitated from water in response to changing chemical conditions.

 

Deposit type: Metamorphic

When high pressures and temperatures are applied to rocks, their chemical and physical properties may change, leading to the formation of new economic mineral deposits. Minerals may be dissolved by hot fluids in the Earth's crust. As the fluid moves and cools, new minerals may crystallise leading to the formation of an economic deposit.

The different ways to concentrate minerals can often work together. For example, oil and gas are made by a combination of sedimentary processes which trap and bury plant and animal remains, and then metamorphic processes which heat and change the remains into deposits of oil and gas.

Mineral exploration is undertaken in order to find mineral deposits that are suitable for commercial exploitation. A variety of methods may be used, including remote sensing (aerial photography and satellite images), geochemical surveys (looking for chemicals in soil and water which indicate certain minerals are present).

Once a mineral deposit has been found it has to be extracted from the ground to access the valuable minerals it contains. This can be done by opencast quarrying or underground mining. Certain minerals can also be extracted by pumping. This is the case with some salt extraction, where the salt is dissolved in water and pumped from underground, and almost all oil and gas.

After minerals have been extracted from the ground they are converted to a form that is useful to us. This usually involves removing any unwanted impurities and further processing to increase the concentration of the economic mineral. Metallic minerals may be smelted or refined to produce metal close to the mine, or the concentrate may be transported to another site for further processing. Oil and gas are also further refined before use. Finally, the mineral is transported to the consumer by rail, road, sea and pipelines.

The way minerals are transported depends on their value and bulk. It is not economic to transport heavy low-cost minerals like aggregates over long distances, whereas expensive minerals, like metals or oil, can be transported internationally.

Find out more

To find out how important minerals are in our everyday life read Why we need minerals.

For more information on mineral deposits read Mineral Matters 10: Minerals - earth's natural resources.

To find out more on the global trade of minerals, why trade is necessary, changes in global minerals trade and the UK's minerals trade position read Mineral Matters 4: Minerals trade – a global picture.

To learn more about mineral reserves, resources, how a deposit is assessed, pricing, supply and strategic minerals read Mineral Matters 5: Minerals — what makes a mine?

See the Industrial Minerals Association Europe quarrying and processing cartoon.

For information on the security and continuity of UK indigenous minerals supply read Mineral Matters 13: Safeguarding our minerals supply.

Read the Guide to Mineral Safeguarding in England.