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Fingerprinting Minerals
JMU Undergrad Honored for Research Using Emerging Technology

"There are other technical ways to identify minerals, such as X-ray diffraction and infrared spectroscopy, which are extremely accurate, but those methods require some destruction of the mineral.”

— Jessica Yakob

When senior mineralogy student Jessica Yakob heard her name called at the International Mineral Symposium, in Rochester, N.Y., this spring, she thought she had won a raffle prize. As Yakob opened the yellow envelope, she realized the prize was something much better. Yakob was awarded the Mandarino Award for most outstanding student presentation and the Ernie Schlichter Memorial Award.

“I was completely shocked when I won the award,” said Yakob, who plans to attend Penn State for graduate school in the fall. “I feel honored because this was one of my big goals of my research. I wanted to present it outside the JMU Geology Department; to have it make an impact.”

Yakob made her presentation—on how well a portable Raman spectrometer was able to identify minerals—to a crowd of 275 people. Spectrometers are commonly used in chemistry and are being used more and more in mineralogy, Yakob said. Yakob spent three semesters at JMU researching and testing 595 mineral samples. In her presentation, she stated that the spectrometer identified 60 percent of the minerals correctly.

Learn About Minerals

calcite specimen from the JMU Mineral Museum
Calcite from Black Rock, Arkansas.

There is a lot to learn about minerals at the JMU Mineral Museum. The museum is in Memorial Hall, near entrance E. (Grace St. side of building), and is open to the public 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The museum features more than 550 crystal and gemstone specimens from around the world.

See the Mineral Museum Web site for more information.

“When I test a mineral with the spectrometer, a spectral pattern is generated for that sample and then the software that comes with the spectrometer identifies what the mineral is by making a comparison with spectral patterns recorded in a database,” Yakob explained. “The spectral patterns for minerals are like fingerprints, each mineral has a unique pattern. The software returns the top three matches for what the sample could be and gives a confidence reading. The best is 100 and the worst is zero. A correct identification would be that the first match by the software is an accurate match, for instance, a quartz prism is identified by the software as quartz.”

While the 60 percent mark could be improved, Yakob said she was pleased with the results since it was the first research she had done using a portable spectrometer. Larger spectrometers provide more reliable results. “Those larger instruments have more tools for refining the study, such as a tunable laser and micro-level analysis. The spectrometer I was using is very basic. I couldn't tune the laser or focus down to very small surfaces,” she said.

Using spectrometers to identify minerals is important because the minerals do not have to be destroyed, Yakob said. “I am unaware of any technical way of identifying minerals in a nondestructive way. There are other technical ways to identify minerals, such as X-ray diffraction and infrared spectroscopy, which are extremely accurate, but those methods require some destruction of the mineral.”

On a topic dealing largely about a new technology, Yakob was pleased she made her point.

"After my presentation people came and told me they understood what I was presenting on," said Yakob. "I felt honored because most people there were from an older generation, so the fact that they grasped what I was saying meant I did a good job."

Published May 2008