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Gunterite mineral & Prof. Gunter with students

Idaho Sparkles: New Mineral Named for Geology Professor

Gunterite is a one-of-a-kind mineral found only in an old Colorado mine. It’s newly named for a one-of-a-kind:  Mickey Gunter, University of Idaho geology professor, who dropped out of high school, then became the first in his family to attend college. He went on to earn a doctorate and studied with the most respected professor in his chosen field – optical mineralogy – in the world.

Gunter has been honored by the International Mineralogical Association, which voted to name the newly discovered mineral after him. 

“It’s one of the biggest honors a person could have in their life as a mineralogist,” says Gunter. “It’s a bit overwhelming at the same time.”

The orange-yellow mineral -- Na4(H2V10O28)22H2O -- is the most recently named new mineral to be discovered this year. It comes out of the Sunday Mine in San Miguel, Colorado, a mine that has already produced several new minerals in recent years.

John Hughes, professor of geology at the University of Vermont, helped drive the naming effort and verification process. He says that the Sunday Mine’s composition is rather unusual, with uranium and vanadium veins that have created unique minerals, including his own hughesite and the new gunterite.

“The mineral is quite rare,” says Hughes. “It’s only found in one place.”

Hughes says the honor is long overdue for Gunter. Roughly 25 new minerals are discovered each year, joining about 4,300 minerals already named.

“Mickey is very well-known internationally  for his mineralogical research, and he’s worked with the best,” says Hughes. “He’s known for his expertise, and he’s definitely past due for such an honor.”

Gunter had been previously approached for a mineral to be named after him, but at the time he declined. This time, though, he felt that it was his time.

Well-known in the geological world, Gunter has assisted in confirming numerous new minerals using optical mineralogy, which is the study of the interaction of light with minerals. To be confirmed, minerals must go through an intensive verification and description process -- which then goes before the association for a vote -- and then can be named, after another vote by the association.

Gunter’s optical characterizations of minerals also have found use in the zeolite group of minerals and their ability to remove heavy metals and radioactive elements from water; the latter is being employed currently at the nuclear reactors that were damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan.

Over the past decade, Gunter has become heavily involved in issues dealing with the occurrence of asbestos in its natural setting, compared to its occupational setting.  Gunter and doctoral student Brittani Thompson discuss this in an article published in Geoscience World, highlighting the importance of how this form of mineral is defined in these two different settings.

Gunter is in good company with the mineral naming honor; three of his graduate advisers have had minerals named in their honor, and Gunter has emerged as a world leader in optical mineralogy himself.

As an undergraduate student, Gunter was drawn to mineralogy – especially the optical portion of it.

“It’s a unique field,” says Gunter. “When I decided to pursue it in graduate school, I wanted to learn from the best.”

His adviser wrote the book on optical mineralogy, now though, he has co-authored a textbook also used world-wide . He also sits alongside and in the seat of his mentors on the board of directors of the Mineralogical Society of America.

So while Gunter has a new name these days, Na4(H2V10028)22H20, the more than 5,000 students he has taught during  22 years at U-Idaho all know him as “Mickey.” In fact, Gunter jokes, when former students hear a mineral was named in his honor, they would have expected it to be “Mickeyite.”