SCREED: Supergene enrichment of carbonatite REE deposits

Lead Research Organisation: University of Brighton


The rare earth elements (REE), and in particular neodymium and dysprosium, are essential for renewable energy devices such as wind turbines and the development of electric motors for transport. At present the REE are sourced from either low concentration weathered granitoid (ion adsorption clay) deposits, or from high concentration carbonatite-related deposits, especially the World's dominant REE mine in hard-rock, altered carbonatite at Bayan Obo, China. The one major mine operator outside of China is the Mount Weld weathered carbonatite, Australia. Weathered carbonatites such as Mount Weld are some of the world's richest REE deposits and several are subject to active exploration. As part of the NERC Global Partnerships Seedcorn fund project WREED, we have carried out preliminary investigations of weathering products on carbonatite hosted REE deposits. Three end member weathering products have been identified (1) carbonate mineral dissolution leaves behind primary REE minerals, forming residual deposits; (2) dissolution and reprecipitation of REE phosphates and fluorcarbonate minerals results in the formation of new hydrated REE-phosphate or -carbonate minerals producing supergene enrichment; and (3) the formation of clay and iron-manganese oxide caps (either from weathering of the deposit itself, or from soil transport from surrounding rocks) that may hold the REE adsorbed to mineral surfaces (c.f. the ion adsorption deposits). High grade, weathered carbonatite deposits typically consist of a range of soil and weathered horizons, that may be phosphate-rich due to dissolution and re-precipitation of apatite and monazite during the weathering process (Mount Weld, Australia), overlain by later sediments that may be REE enriched either by accumulation of residual minerals in lake sediments (Tomtor, Russia). The mineralogy of the ore zone is linked to, but distinct from, the unweathered carbonatite rock, and includes phosphates, crandallite-group minerals, carbonates and fluorcarbonates and oxides. In this study we will utilise bulk rock geochemistry, sequential leaching techniques, mineral chemistry and microbiology to investigate the processes producing different weathered REE deposit styles in carbonatites and their influence on the economic REE grade and environmental impact of deposits. Bulk rock geochemistry will be used to quantify element enrichments and depletions relative to bedrock, and to investigate the potential for ion adsorption style mineralisation in weathered carbonatites. Mineral chemical techniques will be used to investigate the timing of weathering, host minerals of the REE, potential beneficial or harmful changes in chemistry relative to primary minerals, and proxies for the environmental controls on weathering style. These data will be combined with existing records of surface morphology and weathering depth to produce overall genetic models linking climate, geomorphology and geochemistry that will allow prediction of the resource potential of the carbonatite weathered zone. The results will be communicated with industry and the public to raise awareness of the resource requirements of decarbonisation, and potential routes to increased extraction efficiency and reduced impact.


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