Phosphorus is the central ingredient in fertilizer that allows modern agriculture to feed the world’s population. This element, also critical in a host of industrial applications, is a nonrenewable resource that is sourced primarily from the phosphatic mineral apatite, hosted in sedimentary and igneous ores. World phosphate resources are estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey at ca. 300,000 Mt, of which 95% are sedimentary and 5% are igneous. Current known USGS reserve estimates are sufficient for a maximum of 200 to 300 years; the exploration and discovery of new resources, enhanced mining technologies, and new technologies aimed at the recovery and recycling of P from sewage and agricultural runoff will all contribute to extending P production.
Igneous ores are generally associated with Phanerozoic carbonatites and silica-deficient alkalic intrusions that typically average 5 to 15 wt % P2O5, which can be beneficiated to high-grade concentrates of at least 30 wt % P2O5 with few contaminants. Carbonatites are typically the smallest and youngest parts of a carbonatite-alkaline rock complex that formed during fractional crystallization of a calcic parental alkaline silicate melt, or from liquid immiscibility of a carbonate-rich nephelinite that underwent magmatic fractionation and differentiation during ascent from the mantle source. Fluorapatite generally crystallizes early, near the liquidus, and over a small temperature interval below the apatite saturation temperature that varies strongly with temperature, SiO2 and CaO concentrations, and the aluminosity of the melt. Carbonatite-alkaline rock complexes commonly possess a concentric, zonal structure thought to reflect caldera volcanism. Pathfinder elements in soils, sediments, tills, and vegetation include Nb, rare earth elements (REEs), P, Ba, Sr, F, U, and Th, and in water, F, Th, and U are indicators. Remote sensing techniques with the ability to identify minerals rich in CO3, REEs, and Fe2+ that are characteristic of carbonatites are also important exploration tools that may provide vectors to ore.
Sedimentary phosphorite is a marine bioelemental sedimentary rock that contains >18 wt % P2O5. While small peritidal phosphorites formed in Precambrian coastal environments, economically significant upwelling-related phosphorite did not accumulate until the late Neoproterozoic and continued through the Phanerozoic. Coastal upwelling delivered deep, P-rich waters to continental shelves and in epeiric seas to drive phosphogenesis and form the largest phosphorites on Earth. High-grade deposits formed as a result of hydraulic concentration of phosphate grains to form granular beds with minimal gangue. The amalgamation of these beds into decameter-thick, stratiform ore zones is generally focused along the maximum flooding surface, which is a primary exploration target in upwelling-related phosphorite.
In addition to P, other elements concentrated in igneous and sedimentary phosphorites are Se, Mo, Zn, Cu, and Cr, which are important agricultural micronutrients. Other saleable by-products include U and REEs. The U concentration in sedimentary phosphorite is generally between 50 and 200 ppm, but can be as high as 3,000 ppm, making it an increasingly important source of U for the nuclear industry. The concentration of REEs in some sedimentary phosphorites is comparable to the world’s richest igneous and Chinese clay-type REE deposits.
The source of the dissolved P in upwelling ocean water is ultimately derived from the chemical weathering of continental rocks, the process that links igneous and sedimentary phosphorites through time and space. The covarying temporal relationship of igneous and sedimentary deposits suggests that plate tectonics and the concentration of apatite in a progressively more felsic crust underpins the feedback processes regulating the biogeochemical cycling of P.
Critical to the generation of greenfield exploration targets is the recognition that large P deposits emerged in the late Neoproterozoic. The geological environments conducive for exploration can be constrained from an understanding of ore-forming processes by the use of complementary petrological techniques, including fieldwork, petrography, sedimentology, sequence stratigraphy, and geochemistry.