Teaching Mineral Physics Across the Curriculum

Glenn A. Richard, Educational Coordinator, Mineral Physics Institute, SUNY-Stony Brook
Robert C. Liebermann, President, COMPRES--COnsortium for Materials Properties Research in Earth Sciences, SUNY-Stony Brook

This website is for anyone interested in exploring the physical properties of Earth materials, or who would like to study relationships of deep Earth processes to phenomena that occur on the Earth's surface. Applications can be found throughout the geoscience curriculum in diverse fields such as mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, geophysics, seismology, and environmental geochemistry. Although the primary audience is undergraduate geoscience students, there are also topics covered that will be of interest in middle and high school geoscience classes, and for the interested public.

What is Mineral Physics?

Mineral physics is the science of materials that compose the Earth and other planets. Mineral physicists do not always study minerals or use only physics; they employ the principles and techniques from chemistry, physics, materials science and biology to address mineralogical problems and processes within planetary interiors.

Why Teach Mineral Physics?

Research in mineral physics is essential in interpreting observational data from many of the disciplines in the Earth sciences, including geodynamics, seismology, geochemistry, petrology, geomagnetism, and planetary science, as well as materials science and even climate studies, as illustrated in the figure on the right (click on the image to see a larger version).

All of the natural sciences devote a great deal of their focus on processes that occur on the Earth's surface. Our understanding of these processes can be enriched by insight into how the Earth's surface and atmosphere have developed and continue to evolve over time. Much of this evolution is the result of surface manifestations of deep Earth phenomena. Mineral Physics helps us understand the properties of materials that are involved in these deep Earth phenomena, which include:

Digital relief map of the North Atlantic. Image by the National Geophysical Data Center

  • Propagation of seismic waves
  • Earth's gravitational field
  • Earth's magnetic field
  • Plate tectonics
  • Mantle convection
  • Eruptions of kimberlites
  • Volcanism
  • Hot spots
  • Evolution of the Earth's interior
  • Release of gases from the Earth's interior into the atmosphere.

Mineral Physics also focuses on properties of materials that may make them economically useful. Some of these properties are:

  • Superconductivity
  • Optical properties
  • Magnetic properties
  • Potential for generating, storing, conducting, and releasing energy
  • Potential for information storage
  • Chemical properties

See Wikipedia: List of materials properties for a list of properties than may be of interest.

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Teaching Activities Related to Mineral Physics

From the On the Cutting Edge Teaching Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry collections.

Elasticity and sound wave velocities

High-pressure behavior

X-ray diffraction and scattering

Phase transitions in minerals

Phase Equilibria and Phase Diagrams


Hot Spots

Computer model of mantle plumes originating from the core-mantle boundary.
Computer model of mantle plumes originating from the core-mantle boundary. Details

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Instructional Modules

There are a number of instructional modules for teaching about Mineral Physics, developed with the support of COMPRES, the Consortium for Materials Properties Research in Earth Sciences. These modules address a variety of instrumentation, topics, and techniques.

We'd also like to see instructional modules on the following topics:

Phase Transitions

What types (displacive, reconstructive, order-disorder)? Why are they important? Changes in crystal structure, unit cell volume results in density changes... What are the impacts--e.g. seismic structure of crust/mantle.... How can these be used to interpret Earth (e.g. structure state of alkali feldspars as thermometer; aluminosilicates in interpreting metamorphic conditions; SiO2 polymorphs, alpha, beta quartz, cristobalite, coesite....impact and deep crustal burial .... olivine-beta phase and seismic discontinuities...)

Bulk Modulus

What is it, and why is it important? The bulk modulus (K) of a substance is a quantification of its resistance to uniform compression. It can be defined as the change in pressure necessary to cause a specified relative change in volume.

K = -V * ∂p/∂V


  • V = volume
  • p = pressure

Crystal defects

What are the different types of defects: omission, substitution, Frenkel; point defects, dislocations, etc.; How do these affect physical and chemical processes in Earth? Melting--application in igneous petrology; Deformation mechanisms--application in structural geology, etc....)

New Frontiers (Exciting new Research Results)

What are the really "hot topics" emerging in the field of mineral physics? What is the importance and implications of discovery of post-perovskite on the structure of mantle, coupling with outer core and relation to Earth's magnetic field, electrical conductivity? We would like to encourage development of teaching activities that derive from the primary scientific literature, and demonstrate how data and data products are used to replicate or simulate authentic research results.

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Additional Mineral Physics Topics

We are interested in expanding our resource collection in the following areas. If you have a teaching activity, website, article, or course syllabus related to any of these topics, please contribute it using a form on the Mineralogy contribute a resource page.

  • Anelasticity (attenuation and dispersion)
  • Electrical properties
  • Equations of state
  • Fracture and flow
  • Instruments and techniques:
    • Diamond-anvil, high-pressure apparatus
    • Multi-anvil, high-pressure apparatus
  • Magnetic properties
  • Neutron diffraction and scattering

  • Neutron sources
  • NMR, Mossbauer spectroscopy, and other magnetic techniques
  • Optical, infrared, and Raman spectroscopy
  • Physical thermodynamics
  • Plasticity, diffusion, and creep
  • Synchrotron X-radiation sources
  • Shock wave experiments
  • Surfaces and interfaces
  • Thermal expansivity
  • Thermal properties
  • Transport properties

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Contribute a Resource

Please use the following links to contribute a mineralogy resource:

About this project

Developed as a collaboration between the On the Cutting Edge geoscience faculty professional development program (NSF DUE 06-18482) and the COMPRES program (NSF EAR 06-49658).

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