Scientist finds three new uranium-rich minerals in Utah

Uranyl minerals have distinct bright colors even after the uranium-rich ore interacts with air and water to form crusts like leesite. (Image courtesy of Michigan Tech | Travis Olds.)

A US scientist has found three new uranium-rich secondary minerals in the Red Canyon region of Utah, growing on the walls of the area’s old mines.

The three new minerals, leesite, leószilárdite and redcanyonite, will allow researchers to study how different forms of uranium can propagate in the natural environment.

According to Travis Olds, a former student at Michigan Tech currently enrolled at Notre Dame, the relevance of his discovery is that all three specimens — leesite, leószilárdite and redcanyonite — represent a “small and unique slice of the earth’s crust” where human activity spurred the formation of previously unknown minerals.

“The only way to better understand the chemistry of uranium is to go out and find new minerals—and describe their topology, their structures,” he said in a statement. “They teach us a lot about how uranium can then be moved in the environment.”

The discovery of the new elements — known as uranyl compounds — is currently seeking approval from the International Mineralogical Association (IMA).

Last month, Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX) entered into an agreement with the US government for the cleanup of 94 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land.

The mining operations stretched across the vast Navajo Nation reservation — from western New Mexico into Arizona and southern Utah. The last uranium mine shut down in 1986.

From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tonnes of uranium ore were extracted from their lands, with the federal government purchasing the ore to make atomic weapons during the Cold War.

There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation territory and funds available to begin the cleanup process at about 200 of them.

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