Science - Nature
By: - at June 20, 2013

15 Unusual and Less Known Uses of Rocks

Rocks and minerals are an enormous part of our lives. The more advanced that science becomes, the more uses we find for rocks that have surrounded us since the earth's formation. It is common knowledge that we use graphite in pencils and tungsten in steel, but many minerals have lesser-known uses that are not so easy to guess. Some uses of common rocks are even surprising.

15)  Beryllium
Beryllium is formed in stars and does not last long, so it is hard to find on earth. Discovered officially in 1797 by Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, Beryllium has been around since ancient Egypt at least. It occurs on earth only in combination with other minerals. It is the main component of aquamarine and emerald jewels. Ancient people recorded ways to harness the element into emeralds. It is a white-metallic element that is toxic upon inhalation. Beryllium has many special properties and uses.


Beryllium is highly resistant to corrosion when compounded with alloy metals. It thus makes ideal material for spacecraft metals because of how much wear and tear it can withstand when compounded. X-ray windows are also primarily comprised of beryllium, as well as are particle experiments. It is difficult to incorporate sometimes because of how toxic it is. It is not an essential element to sustain life. However, imagine life today without a proper X-ray system. Beryllium is also used to line very high-quality speaker systems. Few elements have so many useful applications in completely different areas.

Not only does beryllium have many uses, it also holds a great deal of potential. Studies of beryllium as rocket fuel have not yet been conducted, but scientists think it could be an excellent candidate. Supercars have also used beryllium in their engine components in the past, until Scuderia Ferrari protested and had it banned.

14)  Gypsum
Gypsum is a soft, white mineral that dissolves very easily. The national park, White Sands, in southern New Mexico, is a park completely composed of gypsum sand, which is much softer and finer than regular beach sand. This occurred because an entire mountain of gypsum eroded into a Pleistocene lake that eventually evaporated, leaving behind an enormous amount of finely dissolved Gypsum. Its name is derived from the Greek words for "chalk" and "plaster," because the mineral is the main component of most plasters. Forms of gypsum have also been used in sculpture.

Typical Gypsum Rock:
Typical Gypsum Rock

These Gypsum Rocks are Used a Lot for Landscaping Purposes:
These Gypsum Rocks are Used a Lot for Landscaping Purposes

Gypsum became a high commodity during the early 1800s. This was due to the ability of gypsum to act as a high-quality plant fertilizer, making it invaluable to farmers. Gypsum helps to bind tennis court clay. It is a component in tofu as well and is very high in calcium. "How to Brew" by John Palmer explains how gypsum can be used to add hardness to water for those trying to homebrew. Gypsum can be found in countless hair products, foot creams, and even the cultivation of mushrooms. This mineral has almost endless applications in today's society.

Anyone who has ever caulked up a hole in the wall knows how valuable plaster can be to the homeowner. Asians especially value the mineral, because they do not consume as much dairy and need alternate sources of calcium, which Gypsum is very rich in. Take the time to realize which elements of the earth affect and help us most as a species. It will be difficult to look as gypsum the same again.

13)  Phosphate
Phosphate is a salt made from phosphoric acid. Phosphate is most commonly used for fertilizers. In addition to potassium and nitrogen, phosphates are one of the main nutrients required to cultivate crops. Treated sewage used to fertilize plants also contains phosphates. It is also an important nutrient for animals, so animal feed often contains good amounts of phosphates.

Human foods such as meat, dairy, and pastries contain phosphates, as humans need the nutrient as well. This planet would be in a sad state if phosphorous did not exist. More unusually, phosphate is a key ingredient in laundry detergents along with dish detergents. Instead of basing these detergents on soap, phosphate allows manufacturers to synthetically produce effective detergents. Less commonly, phosphates are used for flame-retardant purposes, ceramic production, and prevention of corrosion. The Food and Agricultural Organization encourages farmers to make decisions before choosing phosphate to ensure that they are picking the absolute best fertilizer for their property. Either way, phosphate will be necessary in some form for those who wish to raise crops.

12)  Silica
Silica Silica is one of the most common minerals on earth. It has been familiar to mankind since ancient culture and usually occurs in nature as sand or quartz. People produce silica in many forms, from crystals to gels. Anyone who has ever used a glass or looked out a window has seen a popular application of silica. Porcelain and stoneware rely on silica for their structure. Silicates are so useful because they have so many different frameworks and ways of bonding with other elements. This gives silica many possible applications.

Silica can be used to extract DNA, its gel can be used in space to collect particles, and it can even be found in toothpaste as an agent to help remove plaque. Popular Mechanics offers a list of uses for silica gel, including tool protection from oxidization, drying a cell phone that has gotten wet, and fighting camera condensation. Silica's absorbent and sturdy properties make it useful and very safe to rely on, unlike more volatile compounds that may have similar effects but can explode or turn toxic far more easily.


Quartz crystals, made of silica, also have many less conventional uses in the religious realm. Many people use them to provide healing energy or to add power to their thoughts. Quality quartz tied to a string can be swung over a special chart to help predict the future and answer important personal questions. It is important to note that while quartz is scientifically important in machines like lasers, those who walk along the spiritual path in light also find great value in silica. Quartz that has combined with other elements, such as gold, can result in beautifully colored and collectible, valuable crystals.

11)  Vanadium
Andrés Manuel el Río discovered vanadium in 1801. It is a transition metal now produced most commonly in Russia and China. Unfortunately for the development of this research, Río allowed scientific colleagues to convince him that vanadium was indeed chromium, but future scientists sorted everything out just decades later. Most vanadium is used as an alloy with steel to give it a huge boost in strength. It is also a catalyst when producing sulfuric acid.

Vanadium is a by-product of Uranium mining and also as flue dust from heavy oils. Basically to find vanadium, one must look in mineral deposits and where fossil fuels are found. Vanadium present in living creatures may be acting as a toxin. This is the current assumption, since many salts of the element have toxic qualities. Vanadium's role in living organisms, including humans, has not been completely understood yet, and there is much research left to be done on the catalyzing element.

Along with making steel stronger, vanadium prevents corrosion and rust. It helps to make glass coatings for objects by using infrared radiation. Vanadium is even useful in nuclear reactors for capturing neurons and increasing safety. Vanadium can also be used to create superconducting magnets. Vanadium on its own cannot do much, but when combined with metals it becomes essential to our use. If we had no way to protect steel from the elements, we would not be able to rely on it the way we do today for buildings, roller coasters, aircrafts, and countless other structures.

10)  Zeolite
A microporous mineral most commonly applied as an adsorbent, zeolites are available in 40 natural frameworks. They are used to help purify water and extract nitrogen from the air. This is an important component of air purification and pollution control. Zeolites work so well in this arena because its microscopic structure creates regularly-sized pores that can be predicted, so they can be assigned to appropriate filtration systems.

Those interested in cultivating fish will find zeolite important to keep water free of ammonias and other harmful elements. Mines can be remediated with the addition of zeolite, which contains metallurgical waste. Zeolite helps plant soil retain its nutrients more cheaply than other fertilizers. This gives zeolite huge potential is increasing crop production. Our entire food system relies on plants being grown in harsh elements, so rocks like zeolite are priceless.

9)  Sulfur
Sulfur is a highly abundant non-metallic element. It occurs in its pure form and in compounds. Pure sulfur crystals are very attractive and highly collectible. Different sources of sulfur are used for sulfuric acid, but sulfur as an element has many important uses as well. Sulfuric acid also has a variety of applications, such as fertilizer.

People who make furniture have been used sulfur to create intricate wooden inlays, but the gas emitted proved harmful enough to stop the practice. Sulfuric acid is the main purpose for sulfur these days. It was also once used as a laxative and still remains a material that assists with setting large steel bolts. Sulfur can be found in less obvious places as well, such as insecticides and fungicides. Anybody who enjoys the smell of garlic is actually enjoying the odorous result of sulfur. This same element offers the skunk its main defense mechanism by allowing its anal glands to smell especially pungent. Many people describe the smell of rotten eggs as sulfuric, so it seems sulfur plays a large role in the odorous identity of many substances along with its other practical uses.

8)  Mica
Mica is easily identifiable in nature because of its basal cleavage. It gives off a dark, glassy sheen, and when disturbed, it peels apart in layers. It is a component of granite and can be found all over the world. The largest mica crystal ever found was in Canada and weighed about 330 metric tons, according to American Mineralogist. Miners typically mine for mica in areas rich in granite since it occurs so frequently with quartz and feldspar. Besides making up the shiny parts of countertops, mica also has some more scientific uses.

Because of its ability to maintain its chemical structure and electrical properties when subjected to heat, light, and electricity, mica is often used at electrical plants in high frequency capacitors. It also makes an excellent insulator because of these properties. This makes ground mica a common filler in average drywall. Most Americans have lived somewhere that was constructed with drywall. Imagine if developers had been unable to protect the substance making up our walls. Life without mica would be a considerable burden. Mica is not just beautiful and ubiquitous; it has also been greatly useful to recent electrical developments.

Mica is highly demanded and the mica mining industry is always growing. This is because mica is useful in sheet, ground, and built up forms. All physical occurrences of mica can be applied somewhere useful in our society. Completely unexpected places, like diaphragms for breathing assistance equipment also contain mica. The mineral that sparkles on your kitchen counter tops is also currently helping many people who would otherwise die breathe clean air.

7)  Lithium
Lithium is a great Nirvana song, but more importantly it is an element in the alkali group. It is very flammable and must be kept in oil for protection. It is so reactive that it is never found on its own in nature, only in compounds. Lithium is most notably necessary for lithium-ion batteries. It also forms part of the popular pharmaceutical drug Lithium, which helps to treat bipolar disorder. Lithium is the current standard concerning bipolar medication, and it can even help in the treatment of severe depression and some schizoaffective patients. It is completely safe when combined with certain materials, but lithium can be very dangerous to handle on its own if it reacts with any water.

By Dnn87 (Self-photographed), via Wikimedia Commons

Lithium has been used in everything from grease, to glass, to nuclear fusion weapons. It is important to the military for its contribution to propellants (such as missiles). Today it remains in high demand for use in pyrotechnics, metallurgy, and even optics. Lithium is keeping a lot of people in the world mentally stable and has assisted the military for almost a century. The world would not be the same without lithium.

6)  Galena
When miners mine for lead, they are essentially trying to obtain galena, which is the mineral form of lead that occurs naturally. This mineral is incredibly important to humans, though it has caused some healthy problems in years past. Its main use is in lead-acid batteries and is the state mineral of both Wisconsin and Missouri.

Galena is mined because of its silver content as well all over the American West. It is an economically very important ore and major source of silver. In ancient Egypt, people would put the mineral around their eyes to help with the desert sun, and it also kept flies at bay. Its status as a semiconductor made it useful in early wireless communication. By taking galena and a safety pin, one could detect radio signals in the area. This became quite popular during the 1930s for British and European people to do at home. Galena has quite a few uses beyond its basic lead structure. Some of them even allowed people to have fun at home with minerals.

5)  Antimony
Antimony is a metallic element whose compounds often resemble lead in appearance. Occurring on its own rarely, it can mostly be found in sodium compounds throughout the planet. It was often confused for lead back in ancient times, when people used it for cosmetic purposes. China is the main producer of the world's supply of antimony and antimony compounds. It is a highly useful element, because it is necessary in flame-retardant compounds. That is something hard to come by in nature.

In fact, antimony itself is somewhat hard to come by. It makes up such a small fraction of other minerals that it is relatively quite rare. However, its presence in over 100 minerals on earth means that humans have been aware of this element for thousands of years. The first known object using antimony was a vase created around 3000 BC. The fact that the vase remained intact over the years shows that ancient people must have had some art to transform the element from its brittle state that we recognize now.

Antimony has also proved itself useful by getting rid of those tiny little bubbles in glass. We all have watched television; imagine the screen being filled up with annoying bubbles. That is what we would have to deal with without antimony. Antimony can also be found in safety matches, pharmaceutical drugs, and infrared detectors.

4)  Gabbro
Gabbro is a basaltic, dark igneous rock. It can be found underwater at mid-ocean ridges where magmatic activity is high. What makes gabbro special is that it often contains valuable metals such as gold, nickel, silver, and platinum. This also makes the rock very visually appealing, so people enjoying making crafts with it.


Gabbro can be found in ornamental plates, paving stones, and gravestones. It also lines countertops under the name "black granite". Gabbro is also used as a sea defense material, preserving and protecting certain beaches from erosion from the constant ocean waves. It even gives the beach a beautiful metallic sparkle while it protects it from other elements. Gabbro often contains quartz, making it even stronger and more visually appealing. The ability of many valuable elements to be present in gabbro makes the rock versatile and useful to many potential areas of daily life.

3)  Limestone
Limestone is a variety of sedimentary rock containing mainly aragonite and calcium. It is highly ubiquitous throughout the world. Belsazar Hacquet first correctly identified it in 1778. The outside of the Great Pyramid of Giza is made completely from limestone, proving its usefulness in construction since ancient civilization. Limestone is not the cheapest construction material, and it is very heavy, but it is used in many buildings that are not too tall. It is highly vulnerable to acids, and will dissolve, making acid rain a huge threat to limestone structures.


Limestone is ideal for carving and can be found in many ancient beautiful sculptures. It adds white filler to paper, plastics, and even toothpaste. It can help make glass, and it can contain methane explosions underground in mines. Limestone has so many lesser-known uses besides simple construction material. Many of us do not realize we may be brushing our teeth with limestone every day.

Some cities and islands have far more limestone construction than others. Because limestone is so prevalent and makes up one-tenth of all sedimentary rocks, some regions have only limestone to rely on in terms of building construction. Kingston, Ontario, Canada is even known as "Limestone City" because of its overwhelming numbers of limestone buildings. The island of Malta also had little else to rely on and thus has cities constructed almost entirely from limestone. Limestone is completely reliable and visually appealing except in areas more vulnerable to acid rain. Throughout history, some cities have adopted limestone for construction as a stylistic trend, so travelers can find many cities like London with large regions of limestone construction. Medieval churches also relied on limestone for their structures. It is hard to come across a more ubiquitous and useful element.

2)  Pyrite
Pyrite is a highly common mineral composed of iron and sulfur. More commonly known as fool's gold, it bears a resemblance to gold and has tricked many a miner throughout history. For a while, pyrite was used to help ignite firearms in the 16th century. It has also come to replace sulfur as the commercial source of sulfuric acid. It also helps to form sulfur dioxide for making paper. Fool's gold may actually be part of the process behind the paper we use.


Pyrite has recently found a use in Energizer lithium batteries as a cathode. It can help detect other minerals in radio receivers. In the future, it will likely be used as a main component in solar panels. Because pyrite is so pretty on its own, it is also used in marcasite jewelry. It is rare to find something with so many important uses that is still aesthetically pleasing enough to be worn as jewelry.

American settlers in the early 1600s were ecstatic when they found enormous amounts of pyrite on the east coast. Thinking it was gold, they sent it off to England by the shipload, only to be heartily disappointed some weeks later. Thankfully, many other uses for pyrite have been found since then, and it did not turn out to be useless after all, as many disheartened settlers once thought.

1)  Bismuth
Most of us have used or heard of Pepto-Bismol and perhaps thought it was a strange name for a product that is meant to be drunk (it is just not an appealing name). It is in fact named for its main component, bismuth. Bismuth is an element that is chemically similar to arsenic, though obviously not poisonous. It is produced artificially because of its usefulness but can occur in nature on its own. Older civilizations confused it for tin and lead because of its metallic structure, and it functioned for them in the same ways as tin and lead would. It was often used in metal alloys.


Mankind has known about and used bismuth since ancient civilization, so no one knows who exactly discovered it. When allowed to build up, it constructs a beautiful metallic structure that is multi-colored and iridescent. Since it has been adopted as a safer substitute for lead in many products, the price of bismuth has quickly shot up in recent years. Before that it was mainly used to treat burns and sexually transmitted diseases. Today bismuth is also used in ceramics, lubrication, and waterfowl hunting shot.

Final Words
Rocks and minerals are all around us in nature. Most of us do not realize how huge of a role they play in our daily use of tools, cars, buildings, and various materials. Without rocks, our lives would be completely different, and it is hard to say how we would get by. It is important to know how these minerals works for us on a daily basis, as it builds to a greater understanding of the surrounding world. The knowledge may come in handy some day.





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