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Deposit model for heavy-mineral sands in coastal environments

September 17, 2014

This report provides a descriptive model of heavy-mineral sands, which are sedimentary deposits of dense minerals that accumulate with sand, silt, and clay in coastal environments, locally forming economic concentrations of the heavy minerals. This deposit type is the main source of titanium feedstock for the titanium dioxide (TiO2) pigments industry, through recovery of the minerals ilmenite (Fe2+TiO3), rutile (TiO2), and leucoxene (an alteration product of ilmenite). Heavy-mineral sands are also the principal source of zircon (ZrSiO4) and its zirconium oxide; zircon is often recovered as a coproduct. Other heavy minerals produced as coproducts from some deposits are sillimanite/kyanite, staurolite, monazite, and garnet. Monazite [(Ce,La,Nd,Th)PO4] is a source of rare earth elements as well as thorium, which is used in thorium-based nuclear power under development in India and elsewhere.

The processes that form coastal deposits of heavy-mineral sands begin inland. High-grade metamorphic and igneous rocks that contain heavy minerals weather and erode, contributing detritus composed of sand, silt, clay, and heavy minerals to fluvial systems. Streams and rivers carry the detritus to the coast, where they are deposited in a variety of coastal environments, such as deltas, the beach face (foreshore), the nearshore, barrier islands or dunes, and tidal lagoons, as well as the channels and floodplains of streams and rivers in the coastal plain. The sediments are reworked by waves, tides, longshore currents, and wind, which are effective mechanisms for sorting the mineral grains on the basis of differences in their size and density. The finest-grained, most dense heavy minerals are the most effectively sorted. The result is that heavy minerals accumulate together, forming laminated or lens-shaped, heavy-mineral-rich sedimentary packages that can be several meters and even as much as tens of meters thick. Most economic deposits of heavy-mineral sands are Paleogene, Neogene, and Quaternary in age; some are modern coastal deposits.

Superimposed on these basic processes of ore formation are a multitude of contributing and modifying factors, such as the following:

  • Strong, sustained wave action moves sand from offshore to the shore, where the sand and heavy minerals are sorted by size and density. Mineral sorting occurs mainly on the upper part of the hightide swash (wave) zone.
  • Fine-grained sands and heavy minerals on the foreshore can be remobilized by winds, forming heavy mineral-rich sand dunes behind the beach.
  • Longshore drift combined with the geomorphology of the coast exert strong influence on the location of the heavy-mineral sands deposits.
  • Sea level changes are a function of climatic changes, such as ice ages. Rises in regional sea level (transgression) and lowering of sea level (regression) strongly influence the deposition and preservation of heavy-mineral sands. The majority of heavy-mineral sands accumulation appears related to seaward progradation of the shore during regression events.
  • Local faulting may affect the geomorphology of the coast, which controls the distribution of heavy mineral deposition in a coastal basin.
  • Heavy mineral grains appear to weather primarily after their deposition in the coastal plain; this weathering is caused by groundwaters, humic acids, and other intrabasinal fluids. This weathering can enhance the TiO2 content of ilmenite. Iron is leached from ilmenite during weathering, which thereby upgrades the TiO2 content of the ilmenite, forming leucoxene.

The resulting deposits of heavy-mineral sands can be voluminous. Individual bodies of heavy mineral-rich sands are typically about 1 kilometer wide and more than 5 kilometers long. Many heavy-mineral sands districts extend for more than 10 kilometers and contain several individual deposits that are spread along an ancient or modern strandline. Reported thicknesses of economic deposits range from 3 to 45 meters. Individual ore deposits typically comprise at least 10 megatonnes of ore (the total size of the individual sand-silt body), whose overall heavy-mineral content is 2 to greater than 10 percent.

Heavy-mineral sands deposits are relatively easy to mine because they are weakly to poorly consolidated, and they are relatively easy to process. From a geoenvironmental standpoint, mining of heavy mineral-sands generates little or no acid or solubilized metals. However, environmental and human health concerns related to such mining include potential effects on indigenous flora and fauna, effects on local hydrology, and issues related to processing and storing thorium-bearing monazite, owing to its radioactivity.

Regional exploration for deposits of heavy-mineral sands can utilize the analyses of stream sediment samples for Ti, Hf, the rare earth elements, Th, and U, and geophysical surveys, particularly radiometric (gamma-ray spectrometry for K, U, and Th) and magnetic methods. Geophysical anomalies may be small, and surveys are generally more successful when conducted close to sources of interest.

Publication Year 2014
Title Deposit model for heavy-mineral sands in coastal environments
DOI 10.3133/sir20105070L
Authors Bradley S. Van Gosen, David L. Fey, Anjana K. Shah, Philip L. Verplanck, Todd M. Hoefen
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2010-5070
Index ID sir20105070L
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center