Economic Geology News
Breakthrough: Quick and Safe Carbon Dioxide Sequestration in Basalt (10 June 2016)
Recently in a short report in Science, the feasibility of carbon dioxide storage in basalt, derived from a geothermal power plant in Iceland, and the near- instant mineralisation of injected CO2 by newly formed carbonates was demonstrated (Matter et al. 2016).
The Hellisheidi power plant is the second-largest geothermal power producer in the World. Besides water vapour, it releases 40,000 tonnes CO2 and 12,000 tonnes H2S per year, typical for geothermal plants that are fed from a cooling melt body at depth. Magmatic gases are composed of about 90 mol percent H2O, 5–10 mol percent CO2, 1–2 mol percent sulfur species such as SO2 and (or) H2S, and lesser amounts of H2, HCl and HF. Often, they carry traces of metals such as copper and zinc and other elements. When the plant was built, a research project (CarbFix) was established in order to investigate the potential and feasibility of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
Typical for Iceland, sited on a mid-oceanic rift, the local geology is made up of basaltic volcanic rocks and generally, the stress field is distensive. Basalts are favourable host rocks for carbon storage, because they are highly reactive due to contents of up to 25 weight % of calcium, magnesium, and iron that react with CO2 by forming carbonates such as calcite that are environmentally benign and geologically stable. Once stored within carbonate minerals that have a geological life of millions of years (Lackner 2003), the leakage risk of carbon dioxide is eliminated.
Note also, that basalts are one of the most common rock families on Earth, covering ~10% of the continental surface area and most of the ocean floor. Therefore, demonstration of successful deep storage at Hellisheidi is of global importance.
Novel technologies were tested and proved, such as dissolving the gas into down-flowing water in the well during its injection and injecting gas mixtures rather than pure CO2. Until now, purification of CO2 was a considerable economic burden for projects of this kind. Novel carbon tracking methods by chemical and isotopic tracers included admixture of carbon-14 (14C) in order to acquire precise data on the fate of the injected carbon.
Significant results of Matter et al. (2016) include the evidence that carbonate formation started immediately during injection and >95% of the injected CO2 was fixed (“mineralized”) through water-CO2-basalt reactions between the injection and monitoring wells within 2 years.
Although under different conditions, large-scale capture and geological sequestration of CO2 may still face technological and economic challenges, with this report the potential of CCS to be broadly applied is much improved. Earth scientists and engineers such as Matter et al. (2016) illustrate the potential. It is the governments that must provide clear regulations such as a general tax for carbon dioxide emissions (MacKay 2009) in order to assure companies of a long-term business perspective (Haszeldine 2009). Overall it is expected, that in a few decades, CO2 emissions from coal, oil and gas power stations will be reduced to unproblematic levels similar to the successful mitigation of SO2 and NOx. On that base, fossil fuels can yet provide long-term sustainable energy for the world’s industry and peoples (Haszeldine 2009, Jaccard 2006).
Find more information and images of the Hellisheidi power plant, and how to visit it, at https://www.extremeiceland.is/en/information/about-iceland/hellisheidi-geothermal-power-station
Matter, J.M., Stute, M., Snæbjörnsdottir, S.O. et al. (2016) Rapid carbon mineralization for permanent disposal of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Science 352 (6291), 1312-1314. [doi: 10.1126/science.aad8132]
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RIO TINTO Brownfield Mines – Remediate or Extract Remaining Resources? (25 May 2016)
The Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB) in Southwestern Europe with the giant abandoned Río Tinto mines is an outstanding example for this antagonism. Let us first look at the geological and environmental situation:
The IPB is an arcuate volcanic-sedimentary belt of Lower Carboniferous age that contains one of the greatest concentrations of sulphide (mainly pyrite) mineralisation on Earth, with resources in excess of 1700 Mt of sulphide totalling 15 Mt Cu, 13 Mt Pb, 35 Mt Zn, 46 kt Ag and 880 t Au (Adamides 2013). It originated in a supra-subduction setting during the final stages of the collisional assembly of Africa with Iberia, which ended with the formation of Supercontinent Pangaea. About 100 deposits form this metallogenetic province and during >4500 years, hundreds of mines have exploited metals and sulfur. The largest cluster of ore bodies is the Río Tinto mining district that prior to erosion and mining, contained an estimated 500 Mt of massive sulphide and a considerable volume of auriferous gossan.
“Perhaps the most infamous historical mine wastes are those in the Río Tinto Mining District in Andalusia, Spain” (Hudson-Edwards 2016)
Situated at the sources of the Tinto river, the Río Tinto mine is the subject of hot debates in science and environmental communities concerning causation and mitigation of acid drainage and metal contamination affecting the river. Mining at Río Tinto had a first flush in 2500 BCE marked by a metal spike in the river’s estuary (Leblanc et al. 2000) and finally closed in 2001. Remediation at closure was limited; Río Tinto mine was more or less abandoned. Presently, parts of the mine are exhibited as part of a mining museum. In recent years, work is in progress towards opening a new mine (Adamides 2013), though not without opposition.
The Tinto river is 90 km long. Its mean discharge is relatively small—about 15 m3/s; flow ranges from 1 to 100 m3/s depending on seasonal variations, that include dry spells and rainy periods with floods. The Tinto river sediments are gray sands, including quartz, rock particles and abundant detrital pyrite grains that are weakly weathered and slightly rounded (Leblanc et al. 2000). Pebble beds above the water line are coated by ochreous rinds of earthy minerals such as goethite, jarosite and schwertmannite (see Photograph). Ochre formation is one of several processes that induce an attenuation of the solute load along the course of Río Tinto towards the coast (Cánovas et al. 2014).
- Río Tinto some kilometers downstream of the brownfield mining area. The photo dates from the wet season, when the water is not red and the pH tends towards neutral. Riparian vegetation is healthy but the banks are marked by ochre.
There is little doubt that the heritage of large-scale industrial mining that started at about 1850 is a major cause of the present acid mine drainage (AMD) and its effect on the river. Yet, as a geologist, I am sensible to data concerning the state of the river in the geological past. Today, Tinto river is marked by high acidity (pH 1.5–2.5), a high solute load with a rich suite of mineral precipitates and the name-giving red colour in dry seasons, and, surprisingly, a unique, rich fluvial biodiversity of extremophiles (plants, eucaryotes, photosynthetic algae, microorganisms, fungi) that even caught the attention of Mars research (Fernandez-Remolar et al. 2005). Before mining, large supergene copper-silver enrichment ore bodies and auriferous gossans existed at the later Río Tinto mine. Undoubtedly, a large mass of acidity must have passed from the oxidizing sulfides into the river and through the Huelva estuary into the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, traces of this passage are preserved in three terraces of Río Tinto, the oldest dated at 2 ± 0.1 Ma (Fernandez-Remolar et al. 2005). Ferruginous layers in the terraces display clear evidence that in the geological past, the river precipitated the same minerals and supported the same life forms as at present. And when did the river and its biota acquire their present characteristics? When and how fast developed the singular acidophilic ecosystem? It appears likely, that the supergene history of the district began in the Eocene (early Tertiary), ca. 55 million years ago, when the global climate was hot and humid (the last “hothouse Earth” in geological history). Afterwards and until today, weathering must have progressed in a stop-and-go fashion, as climate varied.
What would be your advice to the authorities in Andalusia? Ban all future mining and remediate at all costs, or encourage the exploitation of remaining ore? The first would have to be paid by the taxpayer, Spanish or European, whereas the second might contribute to restoration costs and develop into a showcase of modern green mining. – I vote for the latter decision!
Adamides, N.G. (2013) Río Tinto (Iberian Pyrite Belt): a world-class mineral field reopens. Applied Earth Science 122, 2-15.
Cánovas, C.R., Olías, M. & Nieto, J.M. (2014) Metal(loid) attenuation processes in an extremely acidic river: The Río Tinto (SW Spain). Water Air Soil Pollut 225: Article 1795
Fernandez-Remolar, D.C., Morris, R.V., Gruener, J.E., Amils, R. & Knoll, A.H. (2005) The Rio Tinto basin, Spain: Mineralogy, sedimentary geobiology, and implications for interpretation of outcrop rocks at Meridiani Planum, Mars. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 240 (1): 149–167.
Hudson-Edwards, K. (2016) Tackling mine wastes. Science 352, 288-290. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf3354
Leblanc, M., Morales, J.A., Borrego, J. & Elbaz-Poulichet, F. (2000) 4500-year-old mining pollution in southwestern Spain: long-term implications for modern mining pollution. Economic Geol. 95, 655-662.
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Bliss – Geological Underground Mapping (11 April 2016)
Recently, I spent one week dedicated to geological underground mapping. Already as a student, I loved this work and I still do. Assembling data step by step and constructing a 3D image of the geological situation in a confined space from limited exposures is intellectually (and physically) most rewarding.
Allow me to cite updated text concerning mine mapping from section 5.3.1 of my Economic Geology (2011) book:
Geological mapping of natural outcrops and of man-made exposures is the most important task of the mine geologist. A complete and up-to-date documentation of all geological data is the precondition for both day-to-day management (first of all ore production: Daniels & Mascini 2012) and for serious decisions concerning, for example, a large drilling program, or for the mine and district-scale water management. Field mapping should be carried out at suitable detail (e.g. at 1:1000; note that data in modern software being scalable, such figures rather indicate the needed resolution), whereas display scales of geological mine maps and sections should be equal to the geodetic mine plans. The area surrounding the mine is typically mapped at a scale such as 1:10,000. Airborne or satellite-based synthetic aperture radar interferometry (InSAR) and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) processed into digital elevation models (DEM’s) may provide precise topographical base maps. LIDAR is able to penetrate vegetation cover. Quarry slopes are often surveyed with ground-based LIDAR scanners. Orthophoto-like images are made by surveying pits and the mine near-field with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”). Acquisition of geological and other field data is increasingly executed through personal digital assistants (PDAs) and tablet PCs (Thum & de Paoli 2015).
Never neglect preparing geological overview sections through the mine. One mine I got to know as a forensic expert suffered a catastrophic mud inrush because a stope was driven upward into water-logged hangingwall sediments. Nobody had ever asked where exactly the hard rock/overburden boundary was. This mine had to be abandoned.
Modern mine management software packages includes components for geological work but GIS software, Leapfrog®, Maptec’s Vulcan® and Micromine®, or powerful 3D modelling tools such as Paradigm GOCAD® may be employed for handling multiple data sources (geological maps and sections, geophysics, drillhole logs; Saalmann & Laine 2014). Integrated digital processing of geological data and of mine planning is standard in most mines. The practical arts of geological mine mapping have been admirably described by McKinstry (1948), but consult also Marjoribanks (2010) and Lisle et al. (2011).
Daniels, A. & Mascini, J. (2012) The benefits of mine-scale three-dimensional structural modelling at Macraes gold mine, central Otago, New Zealand: a case study. Applied Earth Science (Trans. Inst. Min. Metall. B) 12, 3-11.
Lisle, R.J., Brabham, P., Barnes, J.W. (2011) Basic geological mapping. 5th ed., 230 pp., Wiley-Blackwell.
Marjoribanks, R. (2010) Geological methods in mineral exploration and mining. 2nd ed., 238 pp, Springer.
Thum, L. & de Paoli, R. (2015) 2D and 3D GIS-based geological and geomechanical survey during tunnel excavation. Engineering Geol. 192, 19–25.
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Exploring in Europe? Investigate the Minerals4EU Website! (9 March 2016)
If you should be the Exploration Vice President of an overseas enterprise considering to look for potential targets in EU-Europe, you might profitably consult the Minerals4EU facility, as described in their homepage.
The Minerals4EU facility aspires to bring Europe’s minerals related geodata into one, virtual, place through a web portal so that users can more easily get the information they need, directly onto their computer, and free-of-charge. The Minerals4EU facility is based on an EU mineral intelligence network delivering the web portal including a GIS based facility, a European Minerals Yearbook and a Foresight Study. The EU minerals intelligence network comprises foremost EU-European national geological surveys. It publishes data, information and knowledge on mineral resources around Europe. In mid-2015, the website went online. Users may find, view and acquire standardized and harmonized georesource and related data, such as geological and mine maps, information on geophysical data, and papers that locate and describe mineral deposits, districts and provinces.
If you are acquainted with the standard of Australian support for mineral explorers, Mr. VP, you may be somewhat disappointed. This has several causes:
- (1) The European Union is a chessboard of national states with different languages, legal systems and cultures.
- (2) Reporting on geology, minerals and mining is not easily transformed into a standard.
- (3) Geophysical coverage of scales that serve exploration is patchy and rarely transgresses borders.
- (4) There may be more shortcomings, but let us pass ...
Yet, the Minerals4EU initiative must be lauded. In time, it may grow into a wonderful resource such as the services provided by Geoscience Australia . If you, Mr.VP, have the funds to assign staff or a consultant to a thorough search concerning your favoured mineral or metal and deposit type, this will be worth it. Minerals4EU will serve as a spring board to more detailed information.
Europe may not be the first choice for globally operating exploration, but it offers strategic advantages and a great diversity of mineral deposits, from Archaean Ni-komatiites to Proterozoic and Palaeozoic iron, gold, rare and base metals, Mesozoic copper porphyries, and Cenozoic epithermal gold. Along the Mediterranean, subduction-related and volcanogenic deposit formation extends into the Holocene. You are aware that giant Rio Tinto has entered the scene (in former Yugoslavia)?
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What is metallogeny? Is it of any Use? (10 February 2016)
The term METALLOGENY was coined by Louis de Launay (1860-1936), who is described as the greatest French geologist ever (see link below). He is still remembered for his lucid descriptions of the giant gold and diamond deposits in South Africa. Let us commemorate the 80th anniversary of his death.
De Launay (1913) created single handedly the science of metallogeny and discovered most of the principles that we still connect with it, although not necessarily with the same words. Here I refer to concepts such as metallogenetic* districts, epochs, maps, metallotects and provinces. He also established a rational genetic classification of mineral deposits.
Today, the “Glossary of Geology” (Neuendorf et al. 2005) defines the term as follows: Metallogeny - the study of the genesis of mineral deposits, with emphasis on their relationship in space and time to regional petrographic and tectonic features of the Earth’s crust.
The scale of metallogenic studies is always regional in extent; I believe that the term should not be applied for the genetic study of one specific deposit. Often these studies include the whole crustal section and may involve parts of the mantle. Fundamental questions typically asked are the source of metals and the circumstances of their mobilisation, migration and eventual enrichment resulting in ore deposit formation.
Ore deposit formation is a function of the Earth’s process systems. Like our understanding of these systems, metallogeny is not a consolidated body of knowledge but an assemblage of structured and unstructured information in perpetual flux.
Most tangible is metallogeny in the printed metallogenetic maps that were produced in the second half of the 20th Century, in order to allow a synopsis of metallogenetic, geological (metallotects) and basic economic data (e.g. the size of deposits). This work improved understanding, but the promised boost of exploration successes was meager. New finds were rather due to application of novel technologies such as remote sensing. The almost global availability of mineral deposit data, however, must have guided numerous investment decisions and exploration programmes.
Currently, digital media and supporting mineral deposit data banks are replacing the printed maps; stacked data (including geology, geophysics, geochemistry etc.) are analysed in GIS or comparable software, often draped over satellite images or digital elevation models (DEMs). Spatial metallogenetic information still serves scientific interests, but its main use is practical, for estimates of undiscovered resources and mineral deposits, and for mapping mineral prospectivity that facilitates strategic planning of exploration (e.g. Carranza & Sadeghi 2010). Modern mineral prospectivity modelling relies on a process-based, or “mineral systems” approach; although the processes cannot be directly observed or mapped, they can be translated into proxies such as wide alteration halos or syngenetic faults that may be recognizable.
Would you support my conclusion that although printed metallogenetic maps are a thing of the past, research of ore deposit formation and its mappable proxies ("metallotects") remains an essential component of high-tech resource estimates, prospectivity modelling and exploration?
*A linguistic note: In British English, the word “metallogenic” refers to an element that occurs as an ore or a naturally occurring metal (e.g. gold). Metallogenetic, in contrast, is something relating to metallogeny (The Chambers Dictionary, 10th ed. 2006).
Carranza, E.J.M. & Sadeghi, M. (2010) Predictive mapping of prospectivity and quantitative estimation of undiscovered VMS deposits in Skellefte district (Sweden). Ore Geology Reviews 38, 219–241.
Launay, Louis de (1913) Traité de métallogénie : gîtes minéraux et métallifères : gisements, recherche, production et commerce des minéraux utiles et minerais, description des principales mines (3 volumes), Paris, C. Béranger.
http://www.annales.org/archives/x/launay.html (Louis de Launay’s life and work; in French language; accessed 10 February 2016)
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Anthropocene Revisited – Is Formalisation Useful for Geology? (16 January 2016)
Recently, a paper in Science (Waters et al. 2016) described the profound influence of humans on Earth surface processes. In conclusion, the two dozen authors support formalisation of the Anthropocene as a new Epoch (equal to Holocene or Pleistocene) in the Geological Time Scale. Recognizing that human impact started with ice age hunters and accelerated to our days, the authors do not settle on a specific event or year but propose more research. Yet they state, that the start of the Anthropocene may be defined by a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age (GSSA) coinciding with detonation of the Trinity atomic device at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945 CE, or with global fall-out signatures from nuclear tests that peak in about 1963.
The impact of humanity on the Earth is excellently summarized and the paper* is a very useful source of hard data on man-made global change. Yet I feel that there is one big misunderstanding on the part of the authors – they do not describe rocks but mainly processes and their signatures, such as nuclear fall-out, accelerated extinction of species, increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, and climate change. And, strangely, they describe the onset of a geological epoch; rather a point in geological time, or an initial event, than its evolution.
In arguing for the formalisation of the Anthropocene as a new geological Epoch the authors neglect to ask if this will be of any use for geological practice and research. – I would not deny, however, that it will make catchy headlines in grant applications and in the media, but what about the geologist in the field?
Waters et al. refer to waste dumps (of mines or cities) as examples of Anthropocene deposits. But already now it is common practice to depict such features on geomaps. Is it of geological interest to separate pre- and post-1945 waste? Shall we measure traces of fall-out nuclides in dumps or soil in order to determine an Anthropocene age? Or, because practically the whole Earth is already impacted by humans, certainly by nuclear fall-out, shall we simply call all surfaces Anthropocene in age?
In my opinion, formalisation of the term “Anthropocene” as a new geological Epoch is useless for geologists and is therefore redundant.
You may also look at an earlier News Weblog on my website (News Archive 2015): The Anthropocene – a Voice of Reason (24 March 2015)
*Waters, C.N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C. et al. (2016) The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351, pp. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622
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