Galena is one of the most abundant and widely distributed sulfide minerals. It crystallizes in the cubic crystal system often showing octahedral forms. It is often associated with the minerals sphalerite, calcite and fluorite.
In some deposits the galena contains about 1–2% silver, a byproduct that far outweighs the main lead ore in revenue. In these deposits significant amounts of silver occur as included silver sulfide mineral phases or as limited silver in solid solution within the galena structure. These argentiferous galenas have long been an important ore of silver.
Galena deposits are found worldwide in various environments. Noted deposits include those at Freiberg in Saxony; Cornwall, the Mendips in Somerset, Derbyshire, and Cumberland in England; the Madan and Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria; the Sullivan Mine of British Columbia; Broken Hill and Mount Isa in Australia; and the ancient mines of Sardinia. In the United States, it occurs most notably in the Mississippi Valley type deposits of the Lead Belt in southeastern Missouri, and in the Driftless Area of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Galena also was a major mineral of the zinc-lead mines of the tri-state district around Joplin in southwestern Missouri and the adjoining areas of Kansas and Oklahoma. Galena is also an important ore mineral in the silver mining regions of Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Montana. Of the latter, the Coeur d'Alene district of northern Idaho was most prominent.
Galena is the official state mineral of the U.S. states of Kansas, Missouri and Wisconsin; the former mining communities of Galena, Kansas, and Galena, Illinois, take their names from deposits of this mineral.
Galena belongs to the octahedral sulfide group of minerals that have metal ions in octahedral positions, such as the iron sulfide pyrrhotite and the nickel arsenide niccolite. The galena group is named after its most common member, with other isometric members that include manganese bearing alabandite and niningerite.
Divalent lead (Pb) cations and sulfur (S) anions form a close-packed cubic unit cell much like the mineral halite of the halide mineral group. Zinc, cadmium, iron, copper, antimony, arsenic, bismuth and selenium also occur in variable amounts in galena. Selenium substitutes for sulfur in the structure constituting a solid solution series. The lead telluride mineral altaite has the same crystal structure as galena.
Within the weathering or oxidation zone galena alters to anglesite (lead sulfate) or cerussite (lead carbonate). Galena exposed to acid mine drainage can be oxidized to anglesite by naturally occurring bacteria and archaea, in a process similar to bioleaching.
One of the oldest uses of galena was in the eye cosmetic kohl. In Ancient Egypt, this was applied around the eyes to reduce the glare of the desert sun and to repel flies, which were a potential source of disease.
Galena is a semiconductor with a small band gap of about 0.4 eV, which found use in early wireless communication systems. It was used as the crystal in crystal radio receivers, in which it was used as a point-contact diode capable of rectifying alternating current to detect the radio signals. The galena crystal was used with a sharp wire, known as a "cat's whisker" in contact with it.
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