The results of research in the use of Au grain morphological and compositional properties applied in primary Au ore exploration are presented here. Two different and independent topics are discussed: (1) morphological characteristics of Au grains from active stream sediments for use as a distance-to-source indicator; (2) compositional signature of Au grains from various deposit types for use as a discrimination tool for source type and present deposit erosion level determination. The purpose of this study is to improve and integrate these two approaches as an exploration tool for Andean covered areas.

Au grain morphology for over 1500 nuggets recovered from 60 active stream sediment samples in the Coastal Cordillera of Central Chile shows morphological variations (general shape, outline, surface, primary crystal imprints, associated minerals, flatness index) characteristic of three distance ranges (0–50 m; 50–300 m; >300 m) from source. Comparison with results from other similar studies of Au morphology characteristics in different climatic and/or sedimentological environments (arid, semi-arid, wet, lateritic, fluvial, fluvio-glacial and glacial) resulted in the determination of the recommended parameters (outline, surface, associated minerals, flatness index) to be used as distance-to-source indicator, independent of the climatic and/or sedimentological environment.

Au grain morphological characteristics may assist in location of target but are not indicators of source type. Study of Au composition via electron microprobe analysis of Au grain cores from epithermal, Au-rich porphyry and Au-rich porphyry Cu systems indicated Au–Ag–Cu contents to be the best discrimination tool for these different types of Au-bearing deposits. In addition, such analysis of grains recovered at different vertical levels from the Cerro Casale Au-rich porphyry provides evidence that the Au compositional signature for a single type of deposit can also aid in the determination of vertical position. This may provide an estimate of the current level of erosion and remaining potential of the source. Some limitations of the proposed techniques are: (1) Au liberated from rock fragments already distant from source would be common in cordilleran and glacial environments, although this would be a detectable feature; (2) these techniques are applicable only for coarse-Au sources; (3) estimate of erosion level of liberated Au is limited to the case here presented.

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