What is Pyrite?
Pyrite is a brass-yellow mineral with a bright metallic luster. It has a chemical composition of iron disulfide (FeS2) and is the most common sulfide mineral. It forms at high and low temperatures and occurs, usually in small quantities, in igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks worldwide.
The name "pyrite" is after the Greek "pyr" meaning "fire." This name was given because pyrite can be used to create the sparks needed for starting a fire if it is struck against metal or another hard material. Pieces of pyrite have also been used as a spark-producing material in flintlock firearms.
Pyrite has a nickname that has become famous - “Fool’s Gold.” The mineral's gold color, metallic luster and high specific gravity often cause it to be mistaken for gold by inexperienced prospectors. However, pyrite is often associated with gold. The two minerals often form together, and in some deposits pyrite contains enough included gold to warrant mining.
Hand-specimens of pyrite are usually easy to identify. The mineral always has a brass-yellow color, a metallic luster and a high specific gravity. It is harder than other yellow metallic minerals and its streak is black, usually with a tinge of green. It often occurs in well-formed crystals in the shape of cubes, octahedrons or pyritohedrons, which often have striated faces.
The only common mineral that has properties similar to pyrite is marcasite, a dimorph of pyrite with the same chemical composition but an orthorhombic crystal structure. Marcasite does not have the same brassy yellow color of pyrite. Instead it is a pale brass color, sometimes with a slight tint of green. Marcasite is more brittle than pyrite and also has a slightly lower specific gravity at 4.8.
Pyrite and gold can easily be distinguished. Gold is very soft and will bend or dent with pin pressure. Pyrite is brittle and thin pieces will break with pin pressure. Gold leaves a yellow streak, while pyrite's streak is greenish black. Gold also has a much higher specific gravity. A little careful testing will help you avoid the "Fool's Gold" problem.
Uses of Pyrite?
Pyrite used to be an important ore for the production of sulfur and sulfuric acid. Today most sulfur is obtained as a byproduct of natural gas and crude oil processing. Some sulfur continues to be produced from pyrite as a byproduct of gold production.
The most important use of pyrite is as an ore of gold. Gold and pyrite form under similar conditions and occur together in the same rocks. In some deposits small amounts of gold occur as inclusions and substitutions within pyrite.
Some pyrites can contain 0.25% gold by weight or more. Although this is a tiny fraction of the ore, the value of gold is so high that the pyrite might be a worthwhile mining target. If pyrite contains 0.25% gold and the gold price is $1500 per troy ounce, then one ton of pyrite will contain about 73 troy ounces of gold worth over $109,000. That is not a guaranteed money-maker. It depends upon how efficiently the gold can be recovered and the cost of the recovery process.
Pyrite is occasionally used as a gemstone. It is fashioned into beads, cut into cabochons, faceted, and carved into shapes. This type of jewelry was popular in the United States and Europe in the mid- to late-1800s. Most of the jewelry stones were called "marcasite," but they are actually pyrite. (Marcasite would be a poor choice for jewelry because it quickly oxidizes, and the oxidation products cause damage to anything that they contact. Pyrite is not an excellent jewelry stone because it easily tarnishes.)