Uses of Rocks & Minerals

Modern Uses

We use things made from rocks and minerals every day. If something doesn't come from a plant or an animal, it has to be mined. According to the Mineral Information Institute, it is estimated that in a lifetime,
a person living in North America will use up the following quantity of rocks and minerals:

  • lead - 365 kg
  • aluminum - 1633 kg
  • zinc - 340 kg
  •  iron - 14 863 kg
  • copper - 680 kg
  • clays - 12 068 kg
  • salt - 12 824 kg (because of all of that road salt during our cold winters!)
  • stone, sand, gravel & cement - 562-773 kg


History - How we used Rocks & minerals way back when

Stone Age:

  • Very long ago, our ancestors used rocks for tools. This was known as the Stone Age.
  • This period of human development lasted a long time - about 3 1/2 million years.
  • This is also known as pre-historic times
  • This era ended about 4,000 to 6, 500 years ago when people learned how to make metal.
  • Obsidian and flint were used for knives and spears.
  • River rocks were used to break other things.
  • Caves were used as places to live and
  • rocks and boulders were used to sit on and to build fire pits.

Copper Age:

  • Depending on what part of the world people lived in, this period was then followed by the Copper Age when people discovered how to smelt (melt using high heat) copper ore.
  • In Britain, it was about 4,500 years ago and lasted for several centuries
  • This was not a long period because people quickly learned how to make other metals.
  • During this time, cities were being built and building stones were being used a lot.

Bronze Age:

  • This was then followed by the Bronze Age about 6,000 years ago.
  • Bronze is an alloy of copper.
  • During this time, people learned how to mix minerals to produce metals like copper, bronze, lead and tin by smelting them.
  • Smelting ore is when you melt crushed rocks with minerals in them at very high temperatures. By adding other chemicals and minerals, the metals separate out and the metal can be poured off. Smelting is like melting with a purpose.
  • The melted rock that is not metal is called slag.


  • This period was then followed by the Iron Age  which started about 3,000 years ago.
  • During the Bronze Age they learned how to extract / make metal from rocks. During the Iron Age they learned how to make tools & implements (things they used) out of metal.
  • Iron is very strong and made very good and long lasting tools.
  • These tools also meant that stone could be shaped more easily and many empires built buildings, structures and roads that still can be seen today.
  • Since that time period, people have built many cities and used minerals extensively.

Modern Age:


 Web Sites that Discuss Minerals & their Uses

Minerals – Colors for walls and faces
Bert Ellison  1999 - 2002

The term "Redskin" probably was first applied by Europeans who encountered the natives of Newfoundland. These early Canadians – Beothuks or Mic-Macs? Painted themselves with some red pigment, probably iron oxide (hematite Fe2O3). There was certainly a lot of it available on Bell Island near present St. John’s and it later became a big source of iron ore. In western Canada and US scattered deposits of this red and also yellow-brown earth were valued sources of color ("war paint") and widely traded. In the caves of Europe, Africa and Australia are wall paintings of not only the authors’ hands but the animals they hunted. White clays and chalk added variety to these age-old records.

Minerals of various kinds and forms thus provide we moderns with a fine account of ancient times. Here are some examples of colors and sources:

  • Dull reds from hematite and ochres – natural earths.
  • Yellows and oranges from iron-rich ochres and later joined by modern compounds of chromium, zinc and cadmium.
  • Greens from malachite Cu2(OH2)CO2 – a copper carbonate.
  • Blues from azurite Cu3(OH)2(CO3)2 - also copper carbonate.
  • Crimson red from cinnabar (HgS), source of mercury, was a favorite lip color for Elizabethan women with lethal results – and for the men too!
  • Black of stibnite (Sb2S3) or kohl is still used to darken around eyes and formerly in the eyes to stain the whites blue and to add glitter – and eventually blindness.
  • More black? How about iron sulfide, graphite and galena? The latter is more abundant than antimony and was also used to darken hair and eyes. Even today Grecian 2000 formula contains lead acetate.
  • More yellows? Would you believe from orpiment (As2S3) or realgar (AsS) both arsenic compounds, mixed with cadmium (Cd) or gold to color hair yellow in 19 Century Britain. Surely those "blondes" didn’t have more fun!
  • White was relatively easy to come by from chalk (CaCO3) titanium dioxide (TiO2), widely used today in paints. Then there is zinc oxide (ZnO), barite (BaSO4) and white lead (cerussite?) (PbCO3).
  • Browns? There is umber (iron and manganese clays) both raw and "burnt".
  • For blues and greens, the Greeks powdered glass containing copper.
  • Other blues? If money, time and labor matter not, try grinding semi-precious sodalite or lapis lazuli.
  • We’re hardly surprised that the thrifty, early railroads of Canada used "box-car red" – hematite, cheap and seemingly ever-lasting.
  • Finally, even whodunits combined lace with arsenic!


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