The massive gypsum crystals found in Mexico's Naica mine are spectacular to behold. The meter-thick beams of translucent crystal stretch across a life-threateningly hot and humid chamber deep within a Mexican mountain.
In 2000, the so-called "Cave of Crystals" was discovered after the chamber had been pumped free of its waters for mining operations. (The chamber was actually drained in 1975, but remained unexplored until 2000.) Without the mineral-rich waters to provide material for the crystals, their growth is on hold.
Tiny gases trapped inside the crystals are revealing secrets about crystal growth and morphology under conditions difficult to replicate within a laboratory because of the amount of time required to grow crystals of that enormous size.
Findings about these giant, ancient crystals will be explored at the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) Congress and General Assembly meeting this week in Montreal.
Juan Manuel García-Ruiz, a researcher and professor for Spain’s National Research Council at the University of Grenada, is examining how mineral self-organization can provide answers to questions about primitive life detection and the origins of life on Earth.
Above, a photo of silica biomorphs formed by the interaction of silica polymers with barium carbonate precipitation.
“In Naica, several geologic conditions have been fulfilled to form the giant crystals -- including the existence of two minerals with reverse solubility vs. temperature, a hot point, and very slow cooling for thousands of years,” García-Ruiz says.
"Under similar conditions to the primitive Earth, silica interacts with carbonates to form complex ... inorganic structures with shapes that are indistinguishable from those considered to be remnants of the oldest life on Earth,” García-Ruiz said.