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Chromite Deposits of the Bushveld


Chromite veins at Dwars River, Bushveld Complex. The black bands, whose
average thickness is about 1020 cm, are chromite cumulates; the white
bands are plagioclase cumulates
Bushveld contains the type examples of ore
deposits in a large layered intrusion, but this is
not the sole type of chromite deposit; others
are found in ophiolites, particularly in the
Urals, Turkey, Greece and India. In addition to
their great economic value.
The mineral occurs in layers that may reach a
metre or more in thickness, which alternate
with layers composed of other magmatic
minerals. The rock is a cumulate, having
formed by the transport of magmatic minerals
to the floor of the Bushveld magma chamber.
The Bushveld Complex itself (Fig. 3.2) is a vast, roughly
funnel-shaped differentiated intrusion composed of
the Lower Zone which consists of alternating layers of
cumulus mafic minerals such as olivine and pyroxene,
the mafic Main Zone of pyroxene and plagioclase
cumulates, and the more evolved Upper Zone of
diorite or gabbro. Intervening between Lower and
Main Zone is the Critical Zone, which contains the
chromite and PGE deposits.
More detailed descriptions of the complex and its ores
are found in Cawthorn et al. (1996, 2005).
Chromite, the ore mineral, is present
throughout the lower ultramafic part of the
intrusion, but normally its concentration is
less than 12%. At these levels the rock is not
ore. Only at specific levels in the Complex, in
olivine orthopyroxene cumulates in the upper
part of the Critical Zone is chromite present in
sufficient quantities and at sufficient
concentrations, to constitute an ore deposit.
The chromite cumulate layers consist of close to 100% of
the ore mineral, and typical ore grades are around 2535%
Cr. The concentration of the same element in the
continental crust is only a few tens of ppm, but this figure is
not relevant because chrome deposits are found in
ultramafic rocks in which concentrations are much higher.
But even taking a typical level for ultramafic intrusions of
1,000 ppm means that the enrichment factor; i.e. the ratio
of the ore grade over the background level, is 250350. In
other words, to form the ore deposit, the concentration of
Cr had to be increased by several hundred percent.
What geological process could have produced this degree
of enrichment?
Formation of
chromite veins in
the Muskox
Intrusion, Canada

Neil Irvine, (Irvine 1975, 1977), developed an interesting and

important model for the origin of chromite deposits in the
Bushveld Complex and in other layered intrusions. His diagram,
modified, shows that under normal conditions 12% chromite
crystallizes together with olivine.
Mafic-ultramafic liquids, such as the parental magma of the
Bushveld Complex, plot in the field of olivine.
Such a liquid initially crystallizes olivine, whose removal
drives the residual liquid composition to the cotectic, at which
point chromite starts to crystallize.
Chromite and olivine crystallize together, in the proportion
given by the intersection of a tangent to the cotectic with the
olivine chromite side of the diagram.
The proportion of chromite ranges from 1.8% to 1.4%, the
amount observed in normal olivine cumulates of the complex.
To produce a layer of almost pure chromite requires
suppression of the accumulation of olivine and other silicate
minerals. Irvine suggested two ways this might happen, both
illustrated in the phase diagrams
In this simple diagram, a strongly curved cotectic separates
the primary phase fields of olivine and chromite.
For chromite to crystallize alone, the composition of the liquid
must be driven off the cotectic and into the chromite field.
Irvine (1975) proposed that one way that this might happen is
when the magma becomes contaminated with granitoid
country rock like that which makes up most of the Archean
continental crust into which the Bushveld magma intruded.
Granite plots at the SiO2 apex in the diagram.
A hybrid, contaminated magma plots on a line between the
magma composition and the apex, at the point labelled D in
the chromite field.
This magma crystallizes chromite alone until its composition
regains the cotectic.
The interval in which chromite crystallizes seems small, but in
a large intrusion like the Bushveld, the chromite that
crystallizes during the interval is enough to form a layer of
appreciable thickness monomineralic chromite cumulate.
The second process depends on the strongly curved shape of
the cotectic.
Irvine (1977) argued that because of this shape, when an
evolved liquid residing in the chamber mixes with a more
primitive liquid that enters the chamber, the hybrid liquid
plots within the chromite field.
Like the contaminated liquid, the hybrid liquid crystallizes
chromite alone. Most probably both processes
contamination and magma mixing operate together to
produce the chromite deposits of the Bushveld Complex.
Obviously the process is not that simple; in particular, it is
very difficult to understand how the chromite crystals
accumulated and how they were extracted from the
enormous volume of magma needed to yield metre-thick
layers of chromite.
Nonetheless, the formation of chromite deposits illustrates an
important principle: the ore mineral, in this case chromite, is a
normal constituent of many ultramafic intrusions and it forms
through normal magmatic processes.
Under ordinary circumstances it is present in low
concentrations: normal magmatic rocks are not ores.
For a deposit to form, the normal geological process must be
perturbed so that the ore mineral accumulates in far higher
In the case of the chromite deposits, contamination or
magma mixing are among the perturbing processes.
A large range of special circumstances modifies other
geological processes like sedimentation or the circulation of
hydrothermal fluids so as to create the unusual
concentrations of minerals that constitute an ore.
Magnetite and Platinum Group Element Deposits of the
Bushveld Complex

The Bushveld Complex contains two other important types of

Layers of magnetite, mined for their vanadium contents, occur
in the upper part of the intrusion.
These magmatic deposits probably formed in a manner
similar to the chromite deposits.
The other type, economically far more important, are deposits
of the platinum group elements (PGE).
The Bushveld Complex contains about 60% of global reserves
of these increasing valuable metals, mainly at two specific
horizons in the lower part of the intrusion.
The upper layer is the famous Merensky Reef, a thin (110 m)
layer of pegmatoid pyroxenite located at the top of the Critical
Zone (Fig. 3.2).
Seemingly low, but economically viable, concentrations of PGE
(5500 ppm) are associated with minor sulfides mainly
towards the base of the Reef.
Because of the high cost of the platinum group elements,
even these low concentrations of metals can be mined at a
The second major mineralized layer, called UG2, is a series of
thick chromite reefs that, in addition to high PGE content, are
also mined for their Cr contents.
No hay consenso sobre el origen de los depsitos PGE.
Una escuela, defendida por Tony Naldrett y Ian Campbell
(Campbell et al, 1983; Naldrett 1989) y Grant Cawthorn y
colegas (Cawthorn et al 2005), sostienen que estos depsitos se
forman a travs de procesos magmticos
Una columna de lquido magmtico primitiva se inyecta en la
base de la cmara y luego se mezcla con el lquido evolucionado
para producir un magma hbrido saturado en sulfuro.
Pequeas gotas de sulfuro son segregadas (separadas) del
liquido magmtico silicatado, stas atraen a los calcofilos PGE
(amantes del azufre).
Las gotitas de sulfuro se enriquecen en PGE y luego se
establecen en el piso de la intrusin para construir lentamente
horizontes mineralizados.
Models for the formation of the Merensky Reef (From Naldrett (2004))
La escuela rival, liderada por Alan Boudreau, Chris Ballhouse,
Ed. Mathez y otros (Ballhaus y Stumpfl 1986; Boudreau 1995;
Mathez 1995) le atribuyen un papel importante a la migracin
de fluidos ricos en voltiles.
Proponen que los lquidos voltiles ricos emigraron a travs
de la pila de cmulos, lixiviando los PGE de los minerales
cmulus volvindolos luego a depositar en horizontes
Qu opina de estas hiptesis?
No es sorprendente que el origen de algunos de los yacimientos
ms grandes del mundo, que estn bien expuestos debido a los
buenos afloramientos y extensas operaciones mineras, y que se han
estudiado intensamente durante casi un siglo, siguen siendo tan
poco conocidos?
Por qu es que los dos grupos de gran prestigio gelogos,
altamente experimentados han desarrollado este tipo de modelos
Qu modelo crees que es el ms plausible (para responder a esta
pregunta ser necesario que lea algo de la abundante literatura
disponible sobre el tema)?
Qu tipo de investigacin se puede hacer para (ayudar a) resolver
el problema?
Magmatic Sulfide Deposits
When a mafic magma cools it crystallizes.
A series of solid phases appear, typically olivine, pyroxene,
feldspar and oxides, which become the constituents of mafic
and ultramafic magmatic rocks.
Under some circumstances second liquid separates, in rare
cases another silicate liquid, which is immiscible with the first
silicate liquid, or, if the sulfur content of the liquid is high, an
immiscible sulfide liquid.
Blobs of magmatic sulfide from Norilsk-Talnakh. Droplets of sulfide liquid
have been frozen in place, suspended in the surrounding mafic liquid
which has solidified to gabbro
The droplets of sulfide liquid contain elevated
concentrations of elements such as Ni, Cu and
the PGE, which are chalcophile or sulfide-loving
Because the sulfide liquid is denser than the
silicate liquid, they tend to settle to the base of
the magma body.
If enough of the sulfide liquid segregates, and if
the concentrations of metals are high enough, it
becomes an ore deposit.
The problem:
Mafic-ultramafic intrusions are known throughout the world,
and from petrological and geochemical data we can infer that
their parental magmas contained high concentrations of Ni,
Cu, and the PGE.
Inspection of polished thin sections shows that many of these
rocks do indeed contain sulfides that separated as an
immiscible liquid, but in most cases this phase appears only
at a very late stage in the crystallization sequence and only
in very low quantities.
What was the particularity of certain
magmas that led them to segregate copious
amounts of metal-rich sulfide?
How was the normal magmatic
differentiation sequence perturbed so as to
form an ore deposit?
Controls on the Formation of
Magmatic Sulfide Liquid
Mafic and ultramafic magmas form by partial melting at great
depth in the mantle, from about 30 to 300 km.
Most of the magmas that yield magmatic ore deposits result
from melting in mantle plumes, which are cylinders or more
irregular masses of solid mantle that are hotter than the
surrounding ambient mantle and ascend because of their low
Only part of the mantle peridotite melts, between 5% and
20% for basalts, 2030% for picrites and up to 60% for
komatiites, and the composition of the magma depends
strongly on the types of minerals that remain in the residue.
The overall character of the melt is controlled by the silicate
phases in the residue of melting while the contents of ore
metals like Ni, Cu and the PGE depend on the sulfide.
In normal mantle peridotite, sulfur is present as sulfide,
which enters to liquid at the start of the melting process and
is totally exhausted when the degree of melting exceeds 20
Controls on the chalcophile element contents of mantle-derived melts
Sulfide is retained in the residue during the formation of low-
degree melt like basalt but is exhausted in high-degree melt
like komatiite.
Nickel, Cu and the PGE are all strongly chalcophile, which
means that when sulfide is retained in the residue, it holds
back these elements: the resultant magmas contain only low
High-degree melts, on the other hand, acquire their full
component of these metals, and partly for this reason are the
most prone to form ore deposits.
When the magma enter the crust and starts crystallize, an
immiscible sulfide liquid will separate from the silicate liquid if
the concentration of sulfur exceeds the sulfide solubility.
The situation can be compared with crystallization of salt from
brine. Only if concentration of salt is high enough will the
brine become saturated and salt crystallize. But saturation
can also be reached if the brine evaporates, which decreases
the amount of water and increases the salt concentration in
the remaining brine; or the solubility of salt can be decreased
by changing the temperature or pressure, or by adding to the
solution other components that decrease the solubility.
The same principles apply to the separation of a sulfide liquid
from a silicate liquid.
Experimental studies have shown that the solubility of sulfide
depends on external parameters such as temperature and
pressure, and on the composition of the melt.
During fractional crystallization of magma, the temperature
drops, the Fe content usually varies little and the Si content
The process will therefore lead eventually to sulfide saturation
and the separation of sulfide liquid.
The process can be accelerated if the magma is contaminated
with granitoid country rock, which increases Si and decreases
Fe; or it can be caused by the assimilation of sulfide- or
sulphate-bearing sediments, which directly increases the S
content of the melt.
Mavrogenes and ONeill (1999) showed that sulfide solubility varies
inversely with pressure.
This means that magma that formed at high pressure deep in the
mantle is capable of dissolving less sulfide than the same magma at
lower pressure in the crust.
The consequence is that most magmas from deep in the mantle are
moderately or highly undersaturated in sulfide when they intrude
into the crust.
For such a magma to segregate sulfide liquid, either it must
crystallize almost completely (in which case the sulfide will be
trapped between abundant crystal and cannot accumulate to form
an ore deposit) or the system must be perturbed so that the sulfide
segregates sooner.
Controls on the Segregation and the Tenor of
Magmatic Sulfide Liquid
The value of a sulfide ore deposit varies widely, depending on
the concentrations of ore metals in the sulfide phase.
Some large accumulations of sulfide contain very low
concentrations of Ni, Cu and PGE (they consist essentially of
pyrrhotite, FeS(1x) and pyrite, FeS2) and they do not constitute
an ore deposit.
Other deposits contain a high proportion of Ni-rich sulfides
like pentlandite (Ni, Fe)9S8 or better still millerite or nicolite,
and they form an ore body even if the amount of sulfide is
The ore metals Ni, Cu and the PGE are all chalcophile and
have a tendency to partition more or less strongly into the
Nickel is lithophile as well as chalcophile and in normal
ultramafic rocks it is distributed between olivine and sulfide.
Copper is moderately chalcophile (the partition coefficient
KDsulf-silicate liquid is about 100), but the PGE are enormously
chalcophile, having a KD of 104-5.
This means that any droplet of sulfide will extract most of the
Cu and Ni, and effectively all of the PGE, from the
surrounding silicate liquid. If the sulfide droplets can then be
concentrated efficiently, for example by gravitative settling,
then an ore deposit forms.
In practice, other processes intervene. The metal contents of
the magma clearly influence composition of the ore:
It is evident that magma containing little to no Ni cannot
produce a nickel deposit.
Ultramafic magma has high Ni but low Cu contents and
sulfide ores in ultramafic rocks have high Ni/Cu.
More important, however, is the relative proportion of
sulfide to silicate liquid, which influences the proportion of
the chalcophile elements that are present in the sulfide.
The situation is best illustrated by the extremely
chalcophile PGE, which, at equilibrium, will be almost
entirely contained in the sulfide phase.
However, in a static system, the PGE migrate into the sulfide
by diffusion, which is inefficient.
In the absence of mechanical mixing of the two phases, each
sulfide droplet will be surrounded by a zone of silicate liquid
that is effectively stripped of PGE.
Only if the sulfide is mixed with a large volume of silicate
liquid can it realize the high PGE content promised by the high
partition coefficients.
To describe this process, Campbell and Naldrett (1979)
introduced the R-factor, which measures the relative
proportion of silicate liquid that interacted with sulfide liquid.
If the R-factor is low; i.e. a small volume of silicate liquid is
mixed with a large volume of sulfide, the content of PGE and
other chalcophile elements of the sulfide is low.
If, however, a small volume of sulfide can mix with a large
volume of silicate liquid, the chalcophile element content of
the sulfide is high. This is the case for the magmatic sulfide of
the Merensky Reef (Campbell et al. 1983).
Kambalda Nickel
Sulfide Deposits

Kambalda region, Australia . Marston et

al. (1981) and Lesher and Keays (2002).

A series of ultramafic lava flows

(komatiites), is underlain by
tholeiitic basalts and overlain by
magnesian basalts.
The complete sequence is exposed
in a small structural dome.
Schematic cross-section through a typical Kambalda ore shoot, showing
distributions of interflow metasediments, interspinifex ores, and felsic ocellites
(After Groves et al. (1986), Frost and Groves (1989))
The ore deposits are mainly restricted to the lowermost
komatiite flow and they are localized at the base of this flow,
within troughs in the underlying basaltic sequence.
Away from the ore deposit, thin bands of sulfide-rich cherty
sediment intervene between basalt and komatiite but these
sediments are missing within the troughs that contain the ore.
The main ore minerals are pentlandite (Fe,Ni)9S8 and chalcopyrite
CuFeS4 which coexist with the barren Fe sulfide pyrrhotite (Fe(1x)S).
In many ore sections, a layer of massive 100% sulfide lines the base
of the komatiite flow and is overlain by net-textured ore, in which
serpentinized olivine grains are enclosed in a sulfide matrix, and in
turn by (serpentinized) olivine cumulate containing disseminated
Veins and lenses of Cu-rich sulfides penetrate into the floor rock
and in places invade the upper part of the komatiite flow.
The composition of the disseminated sulfide corresponds to
monosulfide solid solution, a term that refers to the immiscible
sulfide liquid that separates from the silicate liquid.
The massive sulfide liquid undergoes fractional crystallization
(just like the silicate liquid fractionally crystallizes).
The first solid sulfide that crystallizes is relatively rich in Ni and
Fe and this material remains as a cumulate layer at the base
of the flow while the late-solidifying Cu- and PGE-rich sulfide
liquid may leak out to form veins in surrounding rocks.
Komatiite lava flows occur throughout the 1,500 km long
Yilgarn Craton, but ore deposits are known in only some of
them. And komatiites are common in the much larger Abitibi
belt in Canada, but there the ore deposits are small and rare.
Why do the sulfide deposits occur preferentially in the lower
part of the lowermost komatiite flow?
Why are sedimentary rocks present between each komatiite
flow, except in the troughs that contain the ore deposits?
Why do Ni deposits form in komatiites and not in basaltic lava
Why are Ni sulfide deposits more common in the Yilgarn than
in the Abitibi belt?
What distinguishes the ore-bearing Kambalda komatiites from
barren komatiites?
The ore-forming process at Kambalda
The komatiite lava therefore flows turbulently and the heat
from this ultra high-temperature lava is transferred directly to
the floor rocks .
The consequence is that the floor rocks melt and are
assimilated into the komatiite lava.
At Kambalda, the floor rocks are sulfide (pyrite)-rich cherty
sediments which, when assimilated into the komatiite, change
the composition of the magma.
This contamination simultaneously boosts the S content and
decreases sulfide solubility and this leads to the segregation
of immiscible sulfide liquid.
The komatiite has a high Ni content, and because Ni is a
chalcophile element, the sulfide becomes rich in Ni and other
chalcophile elements like Cu and the PGE.
Because the sulfide is denser than the silicate liquid, it settles
to the base of the flow to form the ore deposit.