The Minor Element Endowment of Modern Sea-Floor Massive Sulfides and Comparison with Deposits Hosted in Ancient Volcanic Successions
Published:January 01, 2016
Thomas Monecke, Sven Petersen, Mark D. Hannington, Hannah Grant, Iain M. Samson, 2016. "The Minor Element Endowment of Modern Sea-Floor Massive Sulfides and Comparison with Deposits Hosted in Ancient Volcanic Successions", Rare Earth and Critical Elements in Ore Deposits, Philip L. Verplanck, Murray W. Hitzman
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Sea-floor massive sulfide deposits represent a new type of base and precious metal resources that may be exploited by future deep-sea mining operations. These deposits occur in diverse tectonic environments and are mostly located along the global mid-ocean ridge system within international waters and arc-related settings within the exclusive economic zones of the world’s oceans. Much controversy is currently centered on the question whether sea-floor massive sulfide deposits represent a significant resource of metals that could be exploited to meet the metal demand of modern technology-based society.
Chemical analysis of sulfide samples from sea-floor hydrothermal vent sites worldwide shows that sea-floor massive sulfides can be enriched in the minor elements Bi, Cd, Ga, Ge, Hg, In, Mo, Sb, Se, Te, and Tl, with concentrations ranging up to several tens or hundreds of parts per million. The minor element content of seafloor sulfides broadly varies with volcanic and tectonic setting. Massive sulfides on mid-ocean ridges commonly show high concentrations of Se, Mo, and Te, whereas arc-related sulfide deposits can be enriched in Cd, Hg,
Sb, and Tl. Superposed on the volcanic and tectonic controls, the minor element content of sea-floor sulfides is strongly influenced by the temperature-dependent solubility of these elements. The high- to intermediatetemperature suite of minor elements, Bi, In, Mo, Se, and Te, is typically enriched in massive sulfides composed of chalcopyrite, while the low-temperature suite of minor elements, Cd, Ga, Ge, Hg, Sb, and Tl, is more typically associated with sphalerite-rich massive sulfides. Temperature-related minor element enrichment trends observed in modern sea-floor hydrothermal systems are broadly comparable to those encountered in fossil massive sulfide deposits.
Although knowledge on the mineralogical sequestration of the minor elements in sea-floor massive sulfide deposits is limited, a significant proportion of the total amount of minor elements contained in massive sulfides appears to be incorporated into the crystal structure of the main sulfide minerals, including pyrite, pyrrhotite, chalcopyrite, sphalerite, wurtzite, and galena. In addition, the over 80 trace minerals recognized represent important hosts of minor elements in massive sulfides. As modern sea-floor sulfides have not been affected by metamorphic recrystallization and remobilization, the minor element distribution and geometallurgical properties of the massive sulfides may differ from those of ancient massive sulfide deposits.
The compilation of geochemical data from samples collected from hydrothermal vent sites worldwide now permits a first-order evaluation of the global minor element endowment of sea-floor sulfide deposits. Based on an estimated 600 million metric tons (Mt) of massive sulfides in the neovolcanic zones of the world’s oceans, the amount of minor elements contained in sea-floor deposits is fairly small when compared to land-based mineral resources. Although some of the minor elements are potentially valuable commodities and could be recovered as co- or by-products from sulfide concentrates, sea-floor massive sulfide deposits clearly do not represent a significant or strategic future resource for these elements.
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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.