Fluid inclusion microthermometry and laser-ablation ICPMS microanalysis are combined with geological and textural observations to reconstruct the spatial and temporal evolution of magmatic fluids that formed the subvolcanic porphyry Cu-Au(-Mo) ore deposit at Bingham Canyon, Utah. The Bingham Canyon orebody is exposed over ~1.6 km vertically and has the shape of an inverted cup with distinct metal zoning.

Fluid inclusions in the barren but highly veined and potassically altered deep center of the system have intermediate density (~0.6 g cm−3) and a salinity of ~7 wt percent NaCl equiv. They have subequal concentrations of Na, K, Fe, and Cu and contain minor CO2. The intermediate-density fluids were trapped as a single phase, mostly at >500°C and >800 bars. The Au-Cu-rich center near the top of the orebody contains low-density vapor inclusions (~0.2 g cm−3) coexisting with brine inclusions containing ~45 wt percent NaCl equiv. The vertical transition of different inclusion types indicates phase separation of the single-phase input fluid upon volume expansion associated with a pressure drop to 200 ± 100 bars. Mass-balance calculation based on all analyzed inclusion components indicates that the mass of the vapor phase exceeded that of the brine by ~9/1. The vapor contained Cu as its dominant cation (~1.5 wt %) and contributed about 95 percent of the total amount of copper transported to the base of the orebody. Bornite, chalcopyrite, and native gold were precipitated in a narrow temperature interval from 430° to 350°C, into secondary pore space created by local redissolution of vein quartz as a result of retrograde quartz solubility in the vapor-dominated fluid system.

Intermediate-density fluid inclusions in the deepest parts of the peripheral copper ore zone have identical density and composition, including similar gold contents, as those in the deep center. Microthermometry and statistical estimation of phase proportions in the inclusions show that the vapor in the peripheral Cu-rich but Au-poor ore zone remained denser, and the separating brine was less saline (~36 wt % NaCl equiv), compared to vapor and brine in the central Au-Cu ore zone. This indicates that the peripheral fluids experienced a lower degree of phase separation, due to slightly higher fluid pressure at equivalent temperature, compared to more strongly expanding fluids in the center of the system.

The systematic zoning of Au/Cu within the ore shell, despite compositionally similar input fluids, is interpreted to have resulted from slightly different pressure-temperature-density evolution paths of magmatic fluids. Copper was selectively precipitated in the peripheral ore zone, in contrast to complete coprecipitation of Au and Cu in the central upflow zone of the vapor plume. The formation of particularly rich Cu-Au ore in the center of the upward-expanding fluid plume is consistent with published experimental data, showing that the solubility of metals in hydrous vapor decreases sharply with falling pressure, due to destabilization of the hydration shell around metal complexes in expanding vapor. This interpretation supports the classic vapor plume model for porphyry copper ore formation but additionally emphasizes the role of sulfur-bearing complexes as a key chemical control on magmatic-hydrothermal metal transport and the deposition of Cu and Au in porphyry ores. Our interpretation of selective Cu ± Au precipitation as a function of vapor density can explain the more general observation that most gold-rich porphyry copper deposits are formed in shallow sub-volcanic environments, whereas deeper seated porphyry Cu-(Mo) deposits are generally gold poor.

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