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$1 Trillion in Rare Minerals Found Under Afghanistan

Despite being one of the poorest nations in the world, Afghanistan may be sitting on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world.

Despite being one of the poorest nations in the world, Afghanistan may be sitting on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world, valued at nearly $1 trillion, according to U.S. scientists.

Afghanistan, a country nearly the size of Texas, is loaded with minerals deposited by the violent collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began inspecting what mineral resources Afghanistan had after U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in the country in 2004. As it turns out, the Afghanistan Geological Survey staff had kept Soviet geological maps and reports up to 50 years old or more that hinted at a geological gold mine.

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In 2006, U.S. researchers flew airborne missions to conduct magnetic, gravity and hyperspectral surveys over Afghanistan. The magnetic surveys probed for iron-bearing minerals up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) below the surface, while the gravity surveys tried to identify sediment-filled basins potentially rich in oil and gas. The hyperspectral survey looked at the spectrum of light reflected off rocks to identify the light signatures unique to each mineral. More than 70 percent of the country was mapped in just two months. [Facts About Rare Earth Minerals (Infographic)]

The surveys verified all the major Soviet finds. Afghanistan may hold 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, and lodes of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium. For instance, the Khanneshin carbonatite deposit in Afghanistan's Helmand province is valued at $89 billion, full as it is with rare earth elements.

"Afghanistan is a country that is very, very rich in mineral resources," Jack Medlin, a geologist and program manager of the U.S. Geological Survey's Afghanistan project, told Live Science. "We've identified the potential for at least 24 world-class mineral deposits." The scientists' work was detailed in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal Science.

In 2010, the USGS data attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), which is entrusted with rebuilding Afghanistan. The task force valued Afghanistan's mineral resources at $908 billion, while the Afghan government's estimate is $3 trillion. [Gold Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Gold Mining?]

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Over the past four years, USGS and TFBSO have embarked on dozens of excursions in the war zone to collect and analyze mineral samples to confirm the aerial findings.

"Performing an assessment of mineral resources in Afghanistan is not like going out in the United States and doing normal field work," Medlin said. "What becomes very, very obvious in Afghanistan is the huge amount of pre-planning that has to take place in order to visit any site in that country, such as who is going to provide security and how much security is needed. You also have to plan how you are actually going to get to some place, as for most of the sites in Afghanistan, you cannot drive there - our work involved helicopters, and for our safety, we couldn't be on the ground very long to get samples."

The researchers' work has helped develop what are essentially treasure maps that let mining companies know what minerals are there, how much is there, and where they are, all to attract bids on the rights to the deposits. The Afghan government has already signed a 30-year, $3 billion contract with the China Metallurgical Group, a state-owned mining enterprise based in Beijing, to exploit the Mes Aynak copper deposit, and awarded mining rights for the country's biggest iron deposit to a group of Indian state-run and private companies. [Is China Mining a Rare Earth Monopoly? Op-Ed]

"These resources provide the potential for Afghanistan to develop its economy, to create jobs and build infrastructure, as it goes into the future," Medlin said.

The mineral riches could lift Afghanistan out of poverty and fight crime and terrorism, said Said Mirzad, co-coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey's Afghanistan program.

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"Terrorists in Afghanistan exploited the misery of the local population," Mirzad said. "If you give the population jobs, if they could bring bread to the table, if they had something to defend, then the terrorists, who are very few in number, won't have sway."

However, developing a mining industry in Afghanistan faces major challenges. "One of the biggest challenges is security," Medlin said. "Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure. We're talking about access to energy, which is required to develop mines. We're talking access to roads, railroads and so forth. We're also talking about access to water, which is needed in most mining operations. It's all a big challenge, but it's doable. It won't happen overnight, but it's doable."

The USGS is currently helping to rebuild the scientific expertise of the Afghanistan Geological Survey, teaching the researchers modern techniques such as remote sensing. "We want to bring the Afghanistan Geological Survey into the 21st century," Medlin said. "The aim is to help the Afghans develop their mineral resources in a sustainable way."

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Mining and other forms of natural resources development can lead to graft, corruption, social unrest and environmental degradation. Other nations rich in resources such as Botswana, Chile and Norway could provide Afghanistan good models to emulate in order to avoid these problems, said Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the journal Science and director of the USGS in the summer of 2012.

For example, important factors contributing to peace and prosperity in those nations are strong public institutions, equitable redistribution of revenues, environmental planning and investment in education, scientific institutions and human resources, McNutt noted.

"The leaders of Afghanistan will have many important decisions to make in the coming years and decades," McNutt wrote in an editorial in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal Science. "Science has opened the door to a new, more prosperous future. May they use this opportunity wisely."

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Elementary, My Dear: 8 Elements You Never Heard Of Images: One-of-a-Kind Places on Earth Shine On: Photos of Dazzling Mineral Specimens Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Article originally appeared on LiveScience.

Rare Earths, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium.

All gemstones are rare; some are just harder to find than others.

In fact, there is no consensus on what is the rarest mineral or the rarest gemstone because there is no consensus on the definition of "rarity," according to the Gemological Institute of America. However, many of the stones in this series come from only one or two localities in the entire world, so in that sense, they are scarce.

Pink Star Diamond

In the image above, model Annabeth Murphy-Thomas poses with the Pink Star diamond at Sotheby's auction house in central London. The diamond was put up for auction in Geneva on Nov. 13, 2013, at $60 million, an already record price for a gemstone, and sold for $83 million. Diamond cutter Isaac Wolf of New York purchased the Pink Star diamond ring, and renamed it the Pink Dream. The diamond measures 1.06 inches by 0.81 inches (2.69cm by 2.06cm).

This Blue Moon diamond, discovered in South Africa in January, 2014, weighs in at 12.03 carats, and is the largest cushion-shaped stone in that category to ever appear at auction. The Gemological Institute of America declared the Blue Moon to be “internally flawless.” It was purchased in November, 2015, by Hong Kong businessman Joseph Lau, who spent $48 million on it for his seven-year-old daughter, Josephine.

This giant rock is said to be the biggest diamond unearthed in more than century. Second in size only to the 3,106-carat Cullinan diamond found in South Africa in 1905, this chunk was found in Botswana.

Opal is Australia’s national gemstone, and black opal is the rarest and most valuable of its kind, at times selling at prices that rival the best diamonds. The stone must have a rich, black background, but base colors come in all shades of gray, which is why opinions vary on what is a "true" black opal. Found in the Lightning Ridge area in northwestern New South Wales, black opals are natural, solid stones that absorb scattered white light, giving it brilliant spectral colors.

The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) calls musgravite "a rarity among the rare... a particular gem on our research examination 'want list.'" A very close relative of another hard-to-find gemstone, taaffeite (and often misidentified as such), musgravite was first discovered in 1967 in the Musgrave Range of South Australia. Facet grade -- the baseline measurement of how clean cut a sellable stone must be -- for musgravite was not reported until 1993. As of 2005, there were only eight musgravite specimens in the world.

Discovered in 1951 in Mogok, Burma, painite was once considered the rarest mineral on Earth. For decades, only two crystals were known to exist. It didn't obtain official gemstone status until 1957 when the British Museum conducted X-ray analysis on a sample. In 1979, a third crystal was recovered by the GIA. Today, more than a thousand crystals and crystal fragments have been found. However, only a small percentage of the rough are suitable for sale. Painite is made up of aluminium, calcium, boron, zirconium and oxygen. It gets its orange-red to brownish-red color from trace amounts of iron.

Jeremejevite is an extremely rare, aluminium borate mineral. It was discovered in the late 19th century and named after Pavel V. Jeremejev, a Russian mineralogist and engineer. Until recently, the only two known localities for jeremejevite were Mt. Soktuj in the Transbaikal region of Russia and Cape Cross, Swakopmund, Namibia. Not much is known about jeremejevite. The color is typically aquamarine, but other records show the mineral can also be dark blue, pale yellow-brown or colorless.

Red diamonds, just like any other diamonds, are made of compressed carbon. However, the brilliant red color in these diamonds is formed from a structural defect in the crystal lattice structure, which is why they are the rarest of the colored diamond collection. Only a handful have ever received the grade of "Fancy Red," meaning that they are pure red with no modifying color. Most are sold at market for millions of dollars. The Argyle mine in Australia is the primary producer of pink and sometimes red diamonds.

This transparent, blue gem first turned up in 1962 and has been found scattered throughout northern Tanzania in Africa. Ranging in color from light blue to pure blue to dark violet-blue, the deepest hues are valued most. Made popular by jewerly giant Tiffany & Co. in 1968, Tanzanite has seen wild price fluctuations over the years. Tanzania's violent political, social and economic conditions have made it difficult at times to mine the mineral. However, the nation remains the gem's only known source.

Although "red emerald” is its snazzy marketing name, and it was originally called "bixbite," this mineral goes by the name "red beryl" today. The brilliant red-purple color is not a trick of the light. The stone's actual chemistry is distinctive and separate from other beryls. It is found along fractures in topaz rhyolites. The gem crystallizes when rhyolite-derived gases, vapors from heated groundwater, and preexisting minerals and volcanic glass in the rhyolite react all at once. There is only one known commercial production of gem-quality red beryl in the world: the Ruby Violet (or Red Beryl) mine in the Wah Wah Mountains of Beaver County, Utah.

Still one of the rarest gems known today, this pinkish mineral was named after the Poudrette family, owners and operators of a quarry near Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Canada, where poudretteite was first found. It was discovered as a few tiny crystals during the mid-1960s, but wasn't recognized as a new mineral until 1986. The first documented gem-quality specimen of poudretteite wasn't discovered until 2000, when it was found in Mogok, Burma. This remarkable, flawless 9.41 carat poudretteite gem from Burma is truly one-of-a-kind. It is considered to be one of the largest -- if not the largest -- faceted poudretteite in existence.