This study evaluates the suitability of portable (handheld) X-Ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF) in the exploration for Aley-type ‘hard-rock’ (primary) carbonatite-hosted Nb deposits. The assessment consists of comparisons between: (1) results of pXRF analyses on selected pulp samples and results of analyses of the same pulps using traditional laboratory methods; (2) results of averaged, multiple pXRF spot field analyses performed directly on 10 to 15 cm long pieces of core (before pulverization) compared with those of traditional laboratory analyses of the same pieces of core after pulverization; and (3) results of a manual core scanning method compared with the results of conventional analytical methods of the pulps of the corresponding scanned sections.

A strong correlation exists between pXRF measurements on pulps and laboratory methods for most specialty metals, such as Nb (r2 = 0.99), La (r2 = 0.97), Ce (r2 = 0.67), Y (r2 = 0.93), and P (r2 = 0.89); however, the values of r2 for Pr and Nd are 0.19 and 0.38, respectively. As expected, textural heterogeneities within sample intervals reduced the quality of pXRF results when multiple spot readings were taken directly on the core. Nevertheless, the data can still be used to identify carbonatite-related Nb (± other specialty metal mineralization) and delimitate potentially economically significant zones within it.

The core scanning reduced the degree of variation associated with spot analyses. Scanning is useful during the early exploration stages, but provides data limited by the inability of the operator to maintain constant scanning speed. The scanning results correlate with laboratory methods for Nb (r2 = 0.88), Th (r2 = 0.80), Fe (r2 = 0.84), Sr (r2 = 0.74), Ba (r2 = 0.73), Y (r2 = 0.59), and Zn (r2 = 0.75). The values of r2 for La, Ce, Pr, and Nd were only 0.31, 0.26, 0.01 and 0.03, respectively, suggesting that concentrations of these elements were too low, and/or that the light rare earth elements (LREEs) were present not only in the crystal structure of fersmite, pyrochlore and apatite, but also in minor or accessory minerals such as REE-bearing fluorocarbonates or zircon erratically distributed throughout the core.

Portable XRF is a robust tool facilitating exploration-related decision-making in the field, assuming that elements of interest such as Nb are present in concentrations within the analytical range of the instrument. The pXRF core scanning reduces the need for sample preparation (no pulps) and can be done directly on the drill-site, but the precision and accuracy of the data are reduced relative to laboratory and pXRF pulp analyses. The multiple spot analyses (no pulps) approach is good for instant verification of unknown, potentially ore-bearing minerals and for analysing discrete homogeneous features, layers, veins, etc; however, under normal circumstances this method is inferior to pulp analyses in precision and accuracy, and to scanning for determining average grade of core intervals.

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