What is a mineral?

To a geologist, a mineral is a naturally occurring solid, formed by geologic processes, that has a crystalline structure and a definable chemical composition. Almost all minerals are inorganic. Let’s pull apart this mouthful of a definition and examine its meaning in detail.
  • Naturally occurring: True minerals are formed in nature, not in factories. We need to emphasize this point because in recent decades, industrial chemists have learned how to synthesize materials that have characteristics virtually identical to those of real minerals. These materials are not minerals in a geologic sense, though they are referred to in the  commercial world as synthetic minerals.  
  • Formed by geologic processes: Traditionally, this phrase implied processes, such as solidification of molten rock or direct precipitation from a water solution, that did not involve living organisms. Increasingly, however, geologists recognize that life is an integral part of the Earth System. So, some  geologists consider solid, crystalline materials produced by organisms to be minerals too. To avoid confusion, the term “biogenic mineral” may be used when discussing such  materials. 
  • Solid: A solid is a state of matter that can maintain its shape indefinitely, and thus will not conform to the shape of its container. Liquids (such as oil or water) and gases (such as air) are not minerals.  
  • Crystalline structure: The atoms that make up a mineral are not distributed randomly and cannot move around easily. Rather, they are fixed in a specific, orderly pattern. A material in which atoms are fixed in an orderly pattern is called a crystalline solid. 
  • Definable chemical composition: This simply means that it is possible to write a chemical formula for a mineral. Some minerals contain only one element, but most are compounds of two or more elements. For example, diamond and graphite have the formula C, because they consist entirely of carbon. Quartz has the formula SiO2 it contains the elements silicon and oxygen in the proportion of one silicon atom for every two oxygen atoms. Calcite has the formula CaCO3, meaning it consists of a calcium (Ca ) ion and a carbonate (CO3 ) ion. Some formulas are more complicated: for example, the formula for biotite is K(Mg,Fe)3(AlSi3O10)(OH)2. 
  • Inorganic: Organic chemicals are molecules containing some carbon-hydrogen bonds. Sugar (C12H22O11), for example, is an organic chemical. Almost all minerals are inorganic. Thus, sugar and protein are not minerals. But, we have to add the qualifier “almost all” because mineralogists do consider about 30 organic substances formed by “the action of geologic processes on organic materials” to be minerals. Examples include the crystals that grow in ancient deposits of bat guano.
With these definitions in mind, we can make an important distinction between minerals and glass. Both minerals and glass are solids, in that they can retain their shape indefinitely. But a mineral is crystalline, and glass is not. Whereas atoms, ions, or molecules in a mineral are ordered into a crystal lattice, like soldiers standing in formation, those in a glass are arranged in a semi-chaotic way, like people at a party, in small clusters or chains that are neither oriented in the same way nor spaced at regular intervals. If you ever need to figure out whether a substance is a mineral or not, just check it against the criteria listed above. Is motor oil a mineral? No it’s an organic liquid. Is table salt a mineral? Yes it’s a solid crystalline compound with the formula NaCl. Is the hard material making up the shell of an oyster considered to be a mineral? Microscopic examination of  an oyster shell reveals that  it consists of calcite, so it can be called a biogenic mineral. Is rock candy a mineral? No. Even though it is solid and crystalline, it’s made by people and it consists of sugar (an organic chemical).
Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)