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What is Limestone? - Properties, Types & Uses

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  • 0:01 What Is Limestone?
  • 0:40 Properties of Limestone
  • 1:57 Types of Limestone
  • 2:52 Limestone Uses
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Pier

Heather has taught high school and college science courses, and has a master's degree in geography-climatology.

In this lesson, learn about limestone, a calcium carbonate-rich chemical sedimentary rock. There are several varieties, including fossil containing rocks, which can be found all over the world. It has numerous uses, particularly as a building material.

What is Limestone?

Limestone is a common, chemical sedimentary rock formed primarily from calcium carbonate. It is generally light-colored and can also include fossils of calcium carbonate-containing organisms, like corals. Limestone can be found all over the world and is the major type of rock found in karst features (crystal cave systems found in bedrock).

Of all the sedimentary rocks found on Earth, almost ten percent of them are some form of limestone. Because it is widely available, it has been used throughout the centuries for many uses, from building materials to chemical additives. Two of the most famous limestone deposits are the islands of the Florida Keys and Niagara Falls.

Properties of Limestone

There are two types of sedimentary rocks: chemical and clastic. Limestone is a chemical sedimentary rock, which forms from the solidification of minerals out of solution into rock form. Because the chemicals in limestone can be readily dissolved by acidic solutions and water, they are able to form karst topography.

Karst topography forms when limestone bedrock chemically reacts with liquids to form unusual features, like stalactites and stalagmites, which are the strange pointy features found in crystal caves around the world and sinkholes. When calcium-rich minerals in limestone are dissolved into groundwater, it forms what is referred to as hard water or water that has higher than normal pH and mineral content.

Depending on the conditions under which they formed, limestone can take on a number of structural shapes, including granular (looking like mineral grains), massive (looking like an irregular blob), crystalline (looking like individual, well-formed crystals), or clastic (looking like fragments of rock). When limestones of any type undergo metamorphism, they re-crystallize as marble. Because all limestone contains calcium carbonate, which reacts with hydrochloric acid to produce bubbles, acid testing is considered one of the most reliable field tests for limestone and calcite mineral identification.

Types of Limestone

There are several different types of limestone, including travertine, oolitic, and fossiliferous. All types of limestone form from a combination of calcium carbonate-containing minerals, primarily calcite and aragonite:

  • Travertine is a banded, rocky-looking form of limestone, typically forming near water bodies like streams or springs.
  • Oolitic limestone is an oozy-looking form of limestone in which individual grains of calcite or aragonite form rounded blob-like masses.
  • While all types of limestone contain some amount of fossilized marine organisms, fossiliferous limestone is the variety that contains obviously visible fossil fragments. These fragments are primarily corals and foraminifera (a type of aquatic amoeba).

In any type of limestone, any variations in the color from the typical light white to pale yellow are a result of impurities, such as clay or sand grains, non-calcium organic remains, and irons.

Limestone Uses

Because it is widely available, generally strong and easy to carve, limestone has long been used as a building material. The Great Pyramid at Giza, as well as many ancient Egyptian buildings, are made from limestone blocks. Several of the buildings on Malta are made from local limestone deposits. Many ancient buildings, particularly churches and temples, were constructed from local limestone in Europe and the Middle East. Despite being widely available, issues with weight (it is extremely heavy) and finishing requirements make limestone too expensive for modern large-scale structures today. However, this cost did not stop many train stations, banks, and other public buildings from being constructed from limestone in North America and Europe around the turn of the 20th century.

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