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Southern Utah, A Geological Hot Spot: Dazzling Uranium-Rich Minerals Discovered In Red Canyon

Travis Olds

Travis Olds grew up in a small mining town on the upper peninsula of Michigan.

“My father was a miner,” he said. “There were old mines everywhere. Just walking through the woods, you’d run into them. Invariably, we’d collect samples and rocks. Ever since I was young, it was just something natural—you see a pretty, shiny thing and you keep it. You put it on your shelf.”

Currently, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, Olds studies the chemistry and mineralogy of radioactive elements and was part of a team that discovered three new uranium-rich minerals in mines throughout southeastern Utah’s Red Canyon.

The mines were very active during the Cold War in the 1950s, but have long since been abandoned. Scientists are now exploring the area for new minerals in an effort to better understand the various forms of uranium and how this radioactive element travels through the environment.

“The cool thing about uranium minerals,” said Olds, “is that some of them are fluorescent. So, what we would do is walk into the mine, shut off our headlamps, turn on a black light and shine it at the wall.”

Credit Travis Olds
Travis Olds (right) and colleagues in front of the Giveaway-Simplot mine in Red Canyon.

Olds and his colleagues spotted fluorescent green crystals encrusted on the walls of the mines.  

“You can’t tell right off the bat if you have something new. You have to bring it back to the lab and put it under the microscope,” he said. “Something chemically strange usually sets it apart.”

One of the new minerals, cleverly named redcanyonite, is composed of a unique combination of elements. The presence of uranium, manganese, and ammonium produces striking red-orange crystals.

In addition to redcanyonite, the scientists discovered two more uranium-based minerals. Leesite, which boasts bright yellow crystals, can be thought of as a uranium rust, because it forms through a reaction with air and water similar to iron rust. Inclusion of the element potassium in this uranium version of rust designates it as one-of-a-kind.

The final mineral named leószilárditeis pale-yellow and exhibits a property that likely dictates why it has only been found in southern Utah—it dissolves in water. The dry, desert climate of Red Canyon is ideal for preserving this rare gem.

“There are a variety of unique geochemical conditions that form some strange minerals,” Olds said.

Utah is most certainly a geological treasure, and Olds can’t wait to explore more of the Beehive State continuing to add more “pretty, shiny things” (perhaps as research specimens now) to that collection he started as a little boy.