1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Calcite

CALCITE, a mineral consisting of naturally occurring calcium carbonate, CaCO3, crystallizing in the rhombohedral system. With the exception of quartz, it is the most widely distributed of minerals, whilst in the beautiful development and extraordinary variety of form of its crystals it is surpassed by none. In the massive condition it occurs as large rock-masses (marble, limestone, chalk) which are often of organic origin, being formed of the remains of molluscs, corals, crinoids, &c., the hard parts of which consist largely of calcite.

The name calcite (Lat. calx, calcis, meaning burnt lime) is of comparatively recent origin, and was first applied, in 1836, to the “barleycorn” pseudomorphs of calcium carbonate after celestite from Sangerhausen in Thuringia; it was not until about 1843 that the name was used in its present sense. The mineral had, however, long been known under the names calcareous spar and calc-spar, and the beautifully transparent variety called Iceland-spar had been much studied. The strong double refraction and perfect cleavages of Iceland-spar were described in detail by Erasmus Bartholinus in 1669 in his book Experimenta Crystalli Islandici disdiaclastici; the study of the same mineral led Christiaan Huygens to discover in 1690 the laws of double refraction, and E. L. Malus in 1808 the polarization of light.

An important property of calcite is the great ease with which it may be cleaved in three directions; the three perfect cleavages are parallel to the faces of the primitive rhombohedron, and the angle between them was determined by W. H. Wollaston in 1812, with the aid of his newly invented reflective goniometer, to be 74° 55′. The cleavage is of great help in distinguishing calcite from other minerals of similar appearance. The hardness of 3 (it is readily scratched with a knife), the specific gravity of 2.72, and the fact that it effervesces briskly in contact with cold dilute acids are also characters of determinative value.

Calcite 1 6.png

Figs. 1–6.—Crystals of Calcite.

Crystals of calcite are extremely varied in form, but, as a rule, they may be referred to four distinct habits, namely: rhombohedral, prismatic, scalenohedral and tabular. The primitive rhombohedron, r {100} (fig. 1), is comparatively rare except in combination with other forms. A flatter rhombohedron, e {110}, is shown in fig. 2, and a more acute one, f {111}, in fig. 3. These three rhombohedra are related in such a manner that, when in combination, the faces of r truncate the polar edges of f, and the faces of e truncate the edges of r. The crystal of prismatic habit shown in fig. 4 is a combination of the prism m {2 11} and the rhombohedron e {110}; fig. 5 is a combination of the scalenohedron v {201} and the rhombohedron r {100}; and the crystal of tabular habit represented in fig. 6 is a combination of the basal pinacoid c {111}, prism m {2 11}, and rhombohedron e {110}. In these figures only six distinct forms (r, e, f, m, v, c) are represented, but more than 400 have been recorded for calcite, whilst the combinations of them are almost endless.

Depending on the habits of the crystals, certain trivial names have been used, such, for example, as dog-tooth-spar for the crystals of scalenohedral habit, so common in the Derbyshire lead mines and limestone caverns; nail-head-spar for crystals terminated by the obtuse rhombohedron e, which are common in the lead mines of Alston Moor in Cumberland; slate-spar (German Schieferspath) for crystals of tabular habit, and sometimes as thin as paper: cannon-spar for crystals of prismatic habit terminated by the basal pinacoid c.

Calcite is also remarkable for the variety and perfection of its twinned crystals. Twinned crystals, though not of infrequent occurrence, are, however, far less common than simple (untwinned) crystals. No less than four well-defined twin-laws are to be distinguished:—

i. Twin-plane c (111).—Here there is rotation of one portion with respect to the other through 180° about the principal (trigonal) axis, which is perpendicular to the plane c (111); or the same result may be obtained by reflection across this plane. Fig. 7 shows a prismatic crystal (like fig. 4) twinned in this manner, and fig. 8 represents a twinned scalenohedron v {201}.

ii. Twin-plane e (110).—The principal axes of the two portions are inclined at an angle of 52° 301/2′. Repeated twinning on this plane is very common, and the twin-lamellae (fig. 9) to which it gives rise are often to be observed in the grains of calcite of crystalline limestones which have been subjected to pressure. This lamellar twinning is of secondary origin; it may be readily produced artificially by pressure, for example, by pressing a knife into the edge of a cleavage rhombohedron.

iii. Twin-plane r (100).—Here the principal axes of the two portions are nearly at right angles (89° 14′), and one of the directions of cleavage in both portions is parallel to the twin-plane. Fine crystals of prismatic habit twinned according to this law were formerly found in considerable numbers at Wheal Wrey in Cornwall, and of scalenohedral habit at Eyam in Derbyshire and Cleator Moor in Cumberland; those from the last two localities are known as “butterfly twins” or “heart-shaped twins” (fig. 10), according to their shape.

iv. Twin-plane f (111).—The principal axes are here inclined at 53° 46′. This is the rarest twin-law of calcite.

Calcite 7 10.png

Fig. 7–10.—Twinned Crystals of Calcite.

Calcite when pure, as in the well-known Iceland-spar, is perfectly transparent and colourless. The lustre is vitreous. Owing to the presence of various impurities, the transparency and colour may vary considerably. Crystals are often nearly white or colourless, usually with a slight yellowish tinge. The yellowish colour is in most cases due to the presence of iron, but in some cases it has been proved to be due to organic matter (such as apocrenic acid) derived from the humus overlying the rocks in which the crystals were formed. An opaque calcite of a grass-green colour, occurring as large cleavage masses in central India and known as hislopite, owes its colour to enclosed “green-earth” (glauconite and celadonite). A stalagmitic calcite of a beautiful purple colour, from Reichelsdorf in Hesse, is coloured by cobalt.

Optically, calcite is uniaxial with negative bi-refringence, the index of refraction for the ordinary ray being greater than for the extraordinary ray; for sodium-light the former is 1.6585 and the latter 1.4862. The difference, 0.1723, between these two indices gives a measure of the bi-refringence or double refraction.

Although the double refraction of some other minerals is greater than that of calcite (e.g. for cinnabar it is 0.347, and for calomel 0.683), yet this phenomenon can be best demonstrated in calcite, since it is a mineral obtainable in large pieces of perfect transparency. Owing to the strong double refraction and the consequent wide separation of the two polarized rays of light traversing the crystal, an object viewed through a cleavage rhombohedron of Iceland-spar is seen double, hence the name doubly-refracting spar. Iceland-spar is extensively used in the construction of Nicol’s prisms for polariscopes, polarizing microscopes and saccharimeters, and of dichroscopes for testing the pleochroism of gem-stones.

Chemically, calcite has the same composition as the orthorhombic aragonite (q.v.), these minerals being dimorphous forms of calcium carbonate. Well-crystallized material, such as Iceland-spar, usually consists of perfectly pure calcium carbonate, but at other times the calcium may be isomorphously replaced by small amounts of magnesium, barium, strontium, manganese, zinc or lead. When the elements named are present in large amount we have the varieties dolomitic calcite, baricalcite, strontianocalcite, ferrocalcite, manganocalcite, zincocalcite and plumbocalcite, respectively.

Mechanically enclosed impurities are also frequently present, and it is to these that the colour is often due. A remarkable case of enclosed impurities is presented by the so-called Fontainbleau limestone, which consists of crystals of calcite of an acute rhombohedral form (fig. 3) enclosing 50 to 60% of quartz-sand. Similar crystals, but with the form of an acute hexagonal pyramid, and enclosing 64% of sand, have recently been found in large quantity over a wide area in South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. The case of hislopite, which encloses up to 20% of “green earth,” has been noted above.

In addition to the varieties of calcite noted above, some others, depending on the state of aggregation of the material, are distinguished. A finely fibrous form is known as satin-spar (q.v.), a name also applied to fibrous gypsum: the most typical example of this is the snow-white material, often with a rosy tinge and a pronounced silky lustre, which occurs in veins in the Carboniferous shales of Alston Moor in Cumberland. Finely scaly varieties with a pearly lustre are known as argentine and aphrite (German Schaumspath); soft, earthy and dull white varieties as agaric mineral, rock-milk, rock-meal, &c.—these form a transition to marls, chalk, &c. Of the granular and compact forms numerous varieties are distinguished (see Limestone and Marble). In the form of stalactites calcite is of extremely common occurrence. Each stalactite usually consists of an aggregate of radially arranged crystalline individuals, though sometimes it may consist of a single individual with crystal faces developed at the free end. Onyx-marbles or Oriental alabaster (see Alabaster) and other stalagmitic deposits also consist of calcite, and so do the allied deposits of travertine, calc-sinter or calc-tufa.

The modes of occurrence of calcite are very varied. It is a common gangue mineral in metalliferous deposits, and in the form of crystals is often associated with ores of lead, iron, copper and silver. It is a common product of alteration in igneous rocks, and frequently occurs as well-developed crystals in association with zeolites lining the amygdaloidal cavities of basaltic and other rocks. Veins and cavities in limestones are usually lined with crystals of calcite. The wide distribution, under various conditions, of crystallized calcite is readily explained by the solubility of calcium carbonate in water containing carbon dioxide, and the ease with which the material is again deposited in the crystallized state when the carbon dioxide is liberated by evaporation. On this also depends the formation of stalactites and calc-sinter.

Localities at which beautifully crystallized specimens of calcite are found are extremely numerous. For beauty of crystals and variety of forms the haematite mines of the Cleator Moor district in west Cumberland and the Furness district in north Lancashire are unsurpassed. The lead mines of Alston in Cumberland and of Derbyshire, and the silver mines of Andreasberg in the Harz and Guanajuato in Mexico have yielded many fine specimens. From the zinc mines of Joplin in Missouri enormous crystals of golden-yellow and amethystine colours have been recently obtained. At all the localities here mentioned the crystals occur with metalliferous ores. In Iceland the mode of occurrence is quite distinct, the mineral being here found in a cavity in basalt.

The quarry, which since the 19th century has supplied the famous Iceland-spar, is in a cavity in basalt, the cavity itself measuring 12 by 5 yds. in area and about 10 ft. in height. It is situated quite close to the farm Helgustadir, about an hour’s ride from the trading station of Eskifjordur on Reydar Fjordur, on the east coast of Iceland. This cavity when first found was filled with pure crystallized masses and enormous crystals. The crystals measure up to a yard across, and are rhombohedral or scalenohedral in habit; their faces are usually dull and corroded or coated with stilbite. In recent years much of the material taken out has not been of sufficient transparency for optical purposes, and this, together with the very limited supply, has caused a considerable rise in price. Only very occasionally has calcite from any locality other than Iceland been used for the construction of a Nicol’s prism.  (L. J. S.)