Metal-sulfate salts from sulfide mineral oxidation

Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry
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The observation of “efflorescences,” or the flowering of salts, associated with periods of dryness in soils, in closed-basin lakes, in rock outcrops, and in mines and mine wastes has been noted since early antiquity. The formation of metal-sulfate salts, in connection with the mining of metals, was a phenomenon well known to the early Greek and Roman civilizations. Alum, most commonly potash alum KAl(SO4)2·12H2O, which is from the Latin alumen, was extensively mined and used by goldsmiths, dyers, paper manufacturers, and physicians in ancient civilizations. It forms from the oxidation of pyrite in shales and slates and from oxidation of sulfurous gases in geothermal areas. The Greeks and the Romans described stalactites of atramentum(soluble metal-sulfate salts) that formed within mines and along rock faces (Agricola 1546, 1556). Furthermore, the toxic effects of these salts on animals were also noted. For example, in De Natura Fossilium, Agricola (1546) stated “….I mention the congealed acid juice which usually produces cadmia. It is white, hard, and so acrid that it can eat away walls, grills and even destroy all living matter.” Cadmia is thought to be derived from the oxidation of zinc, cobalt, and arsenic sulfides, such as cobaltite. He goes on to say that “Pyrite, unless it contains sulphates, is either a golden or silver color, rarely any other, while cadmia is black, yellow brown, or gray. The former will cure gatherings while the latter is a deadly poison and will destroy any living substance. It is used to kill grasshoppers, mice and flies.” These descriptions suggest the presence of arsenic compounds. The range of colors from white to black commonly is caused by different amounts of admixed pyrite with sulfate minerals. From the days of the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (ca 325 BCE) and the Greek physician Dioscorides (first century CE), the efflorescent salts atramentum sutorium virida or melanterite (also called melanteria) and atramentum sutorium caeruleum or chalcanthite were well known to form from the corrosion of pyrite and chalcopyrite by moisture (Agricola 1546, footnotes on p. 47–51). By the time of Pliny the Second (Caius Plinius Secundus, 23–79 CE), the names “green vitriol” for melanterite and “blue vitriol” for chalcanthite were in common use and continued to be used from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Metal-sulfate salts from sulfide mineral oxidation
Series title Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry
DOI 10.2138/rmg.2000.40.6
Volume 40
Year Published 2000
Language English
Publisher Mineralogical Society of America
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center, Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 49 p.
First page 302
Last page 350
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