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October 1, 2017

Everyone’s seen the news–scientists discover a new species of fly and name it for Beyonce; scientists discover a new species of monkey and auction its name off; etc. Hundreds of new species of animals, plants, and other organisms are discovered and named every year. But did you know that dozens of minerals are discovered every year too?

USGS field and laboratory studies led to just such a discovery, approved and  announced by the International Mineralogical Association – Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification with the naming of a newly discovered mineral, “finchite.” Finchite is a greenish-yellow uranium mineral that has been named after long-time USGS uranium geologist Warren Finch.

Image shows a sample of finchite with a quarter for scale
A sample of finchite, a newly discovered uranium mineral. Finchite is the yellow material on the surface of the rock. Finchite is found in the late Pleistocene sediments deposited during the Illinoian glacial stage. It was first observed in Martin County, Texas. Read more about our uranium research here. (Credit: Susan Hall, USGS. Public domain.)

A New Mineral is Unearthed

The road to finchite’s discovery began, as with many newly discovered minerals, with exploration for a mine. In the late 1970s, industry identified a potentially profitable uranium deposit at Sulfur Springs Draw, a creek bed located in west Texas. After drilling nearly 700 bore holes into the deposit, the company estimated 2.1 million metric tons of uranium ore lay just below the surface.

Image shows a man examine rock layers
USGS scientist Bradley Van Gosen examines rock layers for the newly discovered mineral finchite near Lamesa, Texas. Van Gosen was the first to recognize the existence of the new mineral, which was named for long-time USGS uranium geologist Warren Finch. Read more about our uranium research here. (Credit: Susan Hall, USGS. Public domain.)

Due to a trench at the prospect, USGS scientists were able to study the exposed rock layers. In 2015, USGS scientists were examining some sandstone and carbonate layers when they found a yellow-green mineral that was thought to be one of the more common uranium minerals.  However, microscopic analyses of the mineral by the USGS revealed a previously unreported assemblage of elements. Then USGS scientists joined with researchers from the University of Notre Dame to determine if it was indeed a new species of mineral.

Image shows a scanning electron microscope image of finchite
A scanning electron microscope image of the newly discovered mineral finchite. The Denver Microbeam Lab provided this scan of finchite in order to help describe and identify the mineral as a new one. Finchite is a uranium mineral first observed in Martin County, Texas. Read more about our uranium research here. (Credit: Susan Hall, USGS. Public domain.)

After subjecting the mineral to a battery of tests, and coordinating with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to gather optical measurements and arrange to archive a sample of the mineral, the scientists determined that, indeed, the mineral was a brand new type of uranium mineral not previously recognized. Now, the only question was what to name it?

Image shows Warren Finch in a suit
USGS scientist Warren Finch.(Credit: Carol Hamer. Public domain.)

Honoring a Legacy

The scientists decided to name it “finchite” in honor of USGS scientist Warren Finch (1924—2014), whose career had been defined by the study of uranium and the exploration for sources of it. In fact, not only did he inaugurate a program at USGS devoted to uranium and thorium, he was recognized internationally for his expertise. For decades, Warren served the International Atomic Energy Agency as the U.S. representative and technical expert in the areas of uranium resources, uranium resource estimation, and particularly the geology of sandstone-hosted uranium deposits. He also wrote definitive studies of uranium that are still cited today.

The new mineral honors Warren Finch’s long service and contributions to uranium science. In addition, it adds to our body of knowledge about how uranium minerals form and ensures that Finch’s legacy of research continues today at the USGS.

Image shows a detail shot of finchite
Intergrown Finchite and Carnotite (yellowish minerals) with Celestine (white/clear mineral). (Credit: Travis Olds, University of Notre Dame. Image courtesy of Travis Olds, University of Notre Dame)

Finchite Fast Facts:

  • First discovered in 2015
  • Found near Lamesa, Texas
  • Likely formed when dissolved components became minerals as the water evaporated
  • Deposited during the Pleistocene, also known as the Ice Age, when mastodons and saber-toothed cats roamed North Amrica
  • The mineral is a unique  combination of strontium, uranium, vanadium, and water
  • The mineral is a source of fuel for nuclear reactors, which provide about 20% of the electricity we use in the US
  • The mineral is part of a deposit in a region previously not recognized to host uranium deposits in northern Texas
  • If mined would provide a domestic source for uranium, about 90% of which is imported to the US

Read more about USGS uranium research here.

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