Gypsum is a soft sulfate mineral composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate, with the chemical formula CaSO4·2H2O. It is widely mined and is used as a fertilizer, and as the main constituent in many forms of plaster, blackboard chalk and wallboard. A massive fine-grained white or lightly tinted variety of gypsum, called alabaster, has been used for sculpture by many cultures including Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ancient Rome, the Byzantine Empire and the Nottingham alabasters of Medieval England. Mohs scale of mineral hardness, based on scratch hardness comparison, defines hardness value 2 as gypsum. It forms as an evaporite mineral and as a hydration product of anhydrite.
The word gypsum is derived from the Greek word γύψος (gypsos), "plaster". Because the quarries of the Montmartre district of Paris have long furnished burnt gypsum (calcined gypsum) used for various purposes, this dehydrated gypsum became known as plaster of Paris. Upon addition of water, after a few tens of minutes plaster of Paris becomes regular gypsum (dihydrate) again, causing the material to harden or "set" in ways that are useful for casting and construction.
Gypsum was known in Old English as spærstān, "spear stone", referring to its crystalline projections. (Thus, the word spar in mineralogy is by way of comparison to gypsum, referring to any non-ore mineral or crystal that forms in spearlike projections). Gypsum may act as a source of sulfur for plant growth, which was discovered by J. M. Mayer, and in the early 19th century, it was regarded as an almost miraculous fertilizer. American farmers were so anxious to acquire it that a lively smuggling trade with Nova Scotia evolved, resulting in the so-called "Plaster War" of 1820. In the 19th century, it was also known as lime sulfate or sulfate of lime.
Gypsum is moderately water-soluble (~2.0–2.5 g/l at 25 °C) and, in contrast to most other salts, it exhibits retrograde solubility, becoming less soluble at higher temperatures. When gypsum is heated in air it loses water and converts first to calcium sulfate hemihydrate, (bassanite, often simply called "plaster") and, if heated further, to anhydrous calcium sulfate (anhydrite). As for anhydrite, its solubility in saline solutions and in brines is also strongly dependent on NaCl (common table salt) concentration.
Gypsum occurs in nature as flattened and often twinned crystals, and transparent, cleavable masses called selenite. Selenite contains no significant selenium; rather, both substances were named for the ancient Greek word for the Moon.
Selenite may also occur in a silky, fibrous form, in which case it is commonly called "satin spar". Finally, it may also be granular or quite compact. In hand-sized samples, it can be anywhere from transparent to opaque. A very fine-grained white or lightly tinted variety of gypsum, called alabaster, is prized for ornamental work of various sorts. In arid areas, gypsum can occur in a flower-like form, typically opaque, with embedded sand grains called desert rose. It also forms some of the largest crystals found in nature, up to 12 m (39 ft) long, in the form of selenite.
Gypsum is a common mineral, with thick and extensive evaporite beds in association with sedimentary rocks. Deposits are known to occur in strata from as far back as the Archaean eon. Gypsum is deposited from lake and sea water, as well as in hot springs, from volcanic vapors, and sulfate solutions in veins. Hydrothermal anhydrite in veins is commonly hydrated to gypsum by groundwater in near-surface exposures. It is often associated with the minerals halite and sulfur. Gypsum is the most common sulfate mineral. Pure gypsum is white, but other substances found as impurities may give a wide range of colors to local deposits.
Because gypsum dissolves over time in water, gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand. However, the unique conditions of the White Sands National Monument in the US state of New Mexico have created a 710 km2 (270 sq mi) expanse of white gypsum sand, enough to supply the construction industry with drywall for 1,000 years. Commercial exploitation of the area, strongly opposed by area residents, was permanently prevented in 1933 when president Herbert Hoover declared the gypsum dunes a protected national monument.
Gypsum is also formed as a by-product of sulfide oxidation, amongst others by pyrite oxidation, when the sulfuric acid generated reacts with calcium carbonate. Its presence indicates oxidizing conditions. Under reducing conditions, the sulfates it contains can be reduced back to sulfide by sulfate-reducing bacteria. Electric power stations burning coal with flue gas desulfurization produce large quantities of gypsum as a byproduct from the scrubbers.
Orbital pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have indicated the existence of gypsum dunes in the northern polar region of Mars, which were later confirmed at ground level by the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity.
Commercial quantities of gypsum are found in the cities of Araripina and Grajaú in Brazil; in Pakistan, Jamaica, Iran (world's second largest producer), Thailand, Spain (the main producer in Europe), Germany, Italy, England, Ireland, Canada and the United States. Large open pit quarries are located in many places including Fort Dodge, Iowa, which sits on one of the largest deposits of gypsum in the world, and Plaster City, California, United States, and East Kutai, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Several small mines also exist in places such as Kalannie in Western Australia, where gypsum is sold to private buyers for additions of calcium and sulfur as well as reduction of aluminum toxicities on soil for agricultural purposes.
Crystals of gypsum up to 11 m (36 ft) long have been found in the caves of the Naica Mine of Chihuahua, Mexico. The crystals thrived in the cave's extremely rare and stable natural environment. Temperatures stayed at 58 °C (136 °F), and the cave was filled with mineral-rich water that drove the crystals' growth. The largest of those crystals weighs 55 tons and is around 500,000 years old.
Golden gypsum crystals from Winnipeg
Gypsum also precipitates onto brackish water membranes, a phenomenon known as mineral salt scaling, such as during brackish water desalination of water with high concentrations of calcium and sulfate. Scaling decreases membrane life and productivity. This is one of the main obstacles in brackish water membrane desalination processes, such as reverse osmosis or nanofiltration. Other forms of scaling, such as calcite scaling, depending on the water source, can also be important considerations in distillation, as well as in heat exchangers, where either the salt solubility or concentration can change rapidly.
People can be exposed to gypsum in the workplace by breathing it in, skin contact, and eye contact.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set the legal limit (permissible exposure limit) for gypsum exposure in the workplace as TWA 15 mg/m3 for total exposure and TWA 5 mg/m3 for respiratory exposure over an 8-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a recommended exposure limit (REL) of TWA 10 mg/m3 for total exposure and TWA 5 mg/m3 for respiratory exposure over an 8-hour workday.
Gypsum is used in a wide variety of applications:
Unusual selenite gypsum from the Red River, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Classic "ram's horn" gypsum from Santa Eulalia, Chihuahua, Mexico, 7.5×4.3×3.8 cm
Desert rose, 47 cm long
Gypsum with crystalline native copper inside
Bright, cherry-red gypsum crystals 2.5 cm in height colored by rich inclusions of the rare mineral botryogen
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