Rare Earth Element Deposits in China
Published:January 01, 2016
Yuling Xie, Zengqian Hou, Richard J. Goldfarb, Xiang Guo, Lei Wang, 2016. "Rare Earth Element Deposits in China", Rare Earth and Critical Elements in Ore Deposits, Philip L. Verplanck, Murray W. Hitzman
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China is the world’s leading rare earth element (REE) producer and hosts a variety of deposit types. Carbonatite-related REE deposits, the most significant deposit type, include two giant deposits presently being mined in China, Bayan Obo and Maoniuping, the first and third largest deposits of this type in the world, respectively. The carbonatite-related deposits host the majority of China’s REE resource and are the primary supplier of the world’s light REE. The REE-bearing clay deposits, or ion adsorption-type deposits, are second in importance and are the main source in China for heavy REE resources. Other REE resources include those within monazite or xenotime placers, beach placers, alkaline granites, pegmatites, and hydrothermal veins, as well as some additional deposit types in which REE are recovered as by-products.
Carbonatite-related REE deposits in China occur along craton margins, both in rifts (e.g., Bayan Obo) and in reactivated transpressional margins (e.g., Maoniuping). They comprise those along the northern, eastern, and southern margins of the North China block, and along the western margin of the Yangtze block. Major structural features along the craton margins provide first-order controls for REE-related Proterozoic to Cenozoic carbonatite alkaline complexes; these are emplaced in continental margin rifts or strike-slip faults.
The ion adsorption-type REE deposits, mainly situated in the South China block, are genetically linked to the weathering of granite and, less commonly, volcanic rocks and lamprophyres. Indosinian (early Mesozoic) and Yanshanian (late Mesozoic) granites are the most important parent rocks for these REE deposits, although Caledonian (early Paleozoic) granites are also of local importance. The primary REE enrichment is hosted in various mineral phases in the igneous rocks and, during the weathering process, the REE are released and adsorbed by clay minerals in the weathering profile. Currently, these REE-rich clays are primarily mined from open-pit operations in southern China.
The complex geologic evolution of China’s Precambrian blocks, particularly the long-term subduction of ocean crust below the North and South China blocks, enabled recycling of REE-rich pelagic sediments into mantle lithosphere. This resulted in the REE-enriched nature of the mantle below the Precambrian cratons, which were reactivated and thus essentially decratonized during various tectonic episodes throughout the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic. Deep fault zones within and along the edges of the blocks, including continental rifts and strike-slip faults, provided pathways for upwelling of mantle material.
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Rare Earth and Critical Elements in Ore Deposits
This special volume provides a comprehensive review of the current state of knowledge for rare earth and critical elements in ore deposits. The first six chapters are devoted to rare earth elements (REEs) because of the unprecedented interest in these elements during the past several years. The following eight chapters describe critical elements in a number of important ore deposit types. These chapters include a description of the deposit type, major deposits, critical element mineralogy and geochemistry, processes controlling ore-grade enrichment, and exploration guides. This volume represents an important contribution to our understanding of where, how, and why individual critical elements occur and should be of use to both geoscientists and public policy analysts.
The term “critical minerals” was coined in a 2008 National Research Council report (National Research Council, 2008). Although the NRC report used the term “critical minerals,” its focus was primarily on individual chemical elements. The two factors used in the NRC report to rank criticality were (1) the degree to which a commodity is essential, and (2) the risk of supply disruption for the commodity. Technological advancements and changes in lifestyles have changed the criticality of elements; many that had few historic uses are now essential for our current lifestyles, green technologies, and military applications. The concept of element criticality is useful for evaluation of the fragility of commodity markets. This fragility is commonly due to a potential risk of supply disruption, which may be difficult to quantify because it can be affected by political, economic, geologic, geographic, and environmental variables.
Identifying potential sources for some of the elements deemed critical can be challenging. Because many of these elements have had minor historic usage, exploration for them has been limited. Thus, as this volume highlights, the understanding of the occurrence and genesis of critical elements in various ore deposit models is much less well defined than for base and precious metals. A better understanding of the geologic and geochemical processes that lead to ore-grade enrichment of critical elements will aid in determining supply risk and was a driving factor for preparation of this volume. Understanding the gaps in our knowledge of the geology and geochemistry of critical elements should help focus future research priorities.
Critical elements may be recovered either as primary commodities or as by-products from mining of other commodities. For example, nearly 90% of world production of niobium (Nb) is from the Araxá niobium mine (Brazil), whereas gallium (Ga) is recovered primarily as a by-product commodity of bauxite mining or as a by-product of zinc processing from a number of sources worldwide.