Dolomite is a common mineral in old rock formations like the Dolomite Mountains in Italy and the escarpment associated with Niagara Falls in North America. However, it is rarely found in young rock formations, and researchers have been unable to form it in large quantities in the laboratory. This puzzle has stumped scientists for centuries, becoming known to geologists as “the dolomite problem.” How did these massive cliffs and mountains come to be if dolomite is so hard to make?
Recently, a team of researchers may have cracked the case by building a sophisticated computer program to simulate how dolomite grows. The secret ingredient? Water cycling. The scientists found that under typical conditions, the mineral’s structure is built in a disordered way, causing the growth of the dolomite to progress slowly. However, rain or tides can wash away these defects, speeding up growth. Dolomite therefore forms in regions that intermittently flood and dry out, like coastal environments. The researchers designed an experiment to test their theory and were able to grow a sample that was 60 times larger than any previous attempt to make dolomite in a laboratory.
In addition to helping us understand a fundamental geological process, these findings have exciting implications for technology development. Technologies like semiconductors, solar panels, and batteries require materials without defects, which traditionally take a long time to make. By periodically dissolving defects during growth, this work suggests that such materials can be made more quickly.
This study was led by Wenhao Sun, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, and Joonsoo Kim, a PhD candidate in Sun’s research group.
Managing Correspondent: Emily Pass
Press Article: ‘Dolomite Problem’: 200-year-old geology mystery resolved (Michigan News)
Original Journal Article: Dissolution enables dolomite crystal growth near ambient conditions (Science)
Image Credit: Joerg Hartmann/Pexels