A newly discovered mineral is named for an ASU researcher

By Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, January 6, 2023 - 11:21am
Updated: Thursday, January 12, 2023 - 8:08am

Audio icon Download mp3 (4.12 MB)

Slices of the El Ali rock found in Somalia
Nick Gessler/Duke University
Slices of the El Ali rock found in Somalia.

In 2020, researchers where analyzing a 15-ton rock found in a valley in southern Somalia when they came to a conclusion — the rock, dubbed “El Ali,” was not of this world. 

“What we found in this El Ali meteorite from Somalia is that we have three confirmed new minerals — there’s three official new minerals now — and they are new because they have not been recognized in nature before," said Chris Herd, a professor at the University of Alberta and the curator of the University of Alberta’s Meteorite Collection.

He is also one of the lead researchers studying El Ali. Herd's wheelhouse is examining the geology of our solar system through the analysis of meteorites. He with The Show about when he thinks El Ali hit the Earth.

“Could be hundreds or thousands of years ago. It was known to the people in the area — mostly camel herders— for several generations before it was recognized for being a meteorite.”

Herd has been analyzing samples of El Ali, and in November, he released some startling findings: two new substances never seen before on Earth.

“It’s relatively rare to find new minerals in meteorites. I mean, there are hundreds of minerals that are known from meteorites — I think it’s like 300, and some that are known only from meteorites," said Herd.

It seems difficult to believe, in 2023, that we still don’t know all the substances around us. Herd explained that the physical diversity of our universe allows for a myriad of substances to form uniquely to their surroundings:

“Minerals record or reflect specific conditions — a specific of ratio of elements that gets together under specific temperature or pressure or even other factors to form that mineral and not something else.” 

Herd had to assign names to these minerals for scientific taxonomy — one was called “EL-ali-yite” — for the name of the meteorite from which it was found. The other mineral was named “el-kin-STAN-toe-nite” — in honor of a prominent planetary researcher from Arizona State University.

“Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who I have tremendous respect for, who has done a lot of really important and influential work on how planets form and how planets formed in the early solar system and, indeed, how asteroids have formed and evolved,” Herd said.

So what is it like having a brand-new space mineral named in your honor? The Show asked Lindy Elkins-Tanton.

“I’m so grateful to Chris Herd for thinking of me. Snd he called me up last summer to say, would I give permission for him to propose my name for the new mineral and honestly, what kinder and more lovely gift could be given by a colleague? He and I had been colleagues in planetary science for so many decades but we never even worked on a project together so to say that it made my day would be an understatement," said Elkins-Tanton.

Elkins-Tanton is the principal investigator on the Psyche mission, the 14th of NASA’s discovery programs. The four-year mission will lift off this August and place a probe in proximity to an asteroid to analyze its metallic composition.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the photo credit.

More stories from KJZZ

Slices of the El Ali rock found in Somalia
Nick Gessler/Duke University
Slices of the El Ali rock found in Somalia.
Education Science The Show