Rare-element pegmatites may host several economic commodities, such as tantalum (Ta-oxide minerals), tin (cassiterite), lithium (ceramic-grade spodumene and petalite), and cesium (pollucite). Key geological features that are common to pegmatites in the Superior province of Ontario and Manitoba, Canada, and in other large tantalum deposits worldwide, can be used in exploration.
An exploration project for rare-element pegmatites should begin with an examination of a regional geology map. Rare-element pegmatites occur along large regional-scale faults in greenschist and amphibolite facies metamorphic terranes. They are typically hosted by mafic metavolcanic or metasedimentary rocks, and are located near peraluminous granite plutons (A/CNK > 1.0). Once a peraluminous granite pluton has been identified, then the next step is to determine if the pluton is barren or fertile. Fertile granites have elevated rare element contents, Mg/Li ratio < 10, and Nb/Ta ratio < 8. They commonly contain blocky K-feldspar and green muscovite. Key fractionation indicators can be plotted on a map of the fertile granite pluton to determine the fractionation direction: presence of tourmaline, beryl, and ferrocolumbite; Mn content in garnet; Rb content in bulk K-feldspar; and Mg/Li and Nb/Ta ratios in bulk granite samples. Pegmatite dikes with the most economic potential for Li-Cs-Ta deposits occur the greatest distance (up to 10 km) from the parent granite.
Metasomatized host rocks are an indication of a nearby rare-element pegmatite. Metasomatic aureoles can be identified by their geochemistry: elevated Li, Rb, Cs, B, and F contents; and by their mineralogy: presence of tourmaline, (Rb, Cs)-enriched biotite, holmquistite, muscovite, and rarely garnet.
Once a pegmatite dike has been located, the next step is to assess its potential to contain Ta mineralization. Pegmatites with the highest degree of fractionation (and thus the most economic potential for Li-Cs-Ta) contain blocky K-feldspar with >3,000 ppm Rb, K/Rb < 30, and >100 ppm Cs; and coarse-grained green muscovite with >2,000 ppm Li, >10,000 ppm Rb, >500 ppm Cs, and >65 ppm Ta. Pegmatites with Ta mineralization usually contain Li-rich minerals (e.g., spodumene, petalite, lepidolite, elbaite, amblygonite, and lithiophilite) and may contain Cs-rich minerals (e.g., pollucite, Cs-rich beryl). The ore minerals of Ta are commonly manganotantalite, manganocolumbite, wodginite, and microlite; Ta-rich cassiterite is also commonly present. Tantalum mineralization tends to occur in albitic aplite, mica-rich (lepidolite, cleavelandite ± lepidolite), and spodumene/petalite pegmatite zones.