Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Mineral-deposit model for lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatites

June 20, 2017

Lithium-cesium-tantalum (LCT) pegmatites comprise a compositionally defined subset of granitic pegmatites. The major minerals are quartz, potassium feldspar, albite, and muscovite; typical accessory minerals include biotite, garnet, tourmaline, and apatite. The principal lithium ore minerals are spodumene, petalite, and lepidolite; cesium mostly comes from pollucite; and tantalum mostly comes from columbite-tantalite. Tin ore as cassiterite and beryllium ore as beryl also occur in LCT pegmatites, as do a number of gemstones and high-value museum specimens of rare minerals. Individual crystals in LCT pegmatites can be enormous: the largest spodumene was 14 meters long, the largest beryl was 18 meters long, and the largest potassium feldspar was 49 meters long.

Lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatites account for about one-fourth of the world’s lithium production, most of the tantalum production, and all of the cesium production. Giant deposits include Tanco in Canada, Greenbushes in Australia, and Bikita in Zimbabwe. The largest lithium pegmatite in the United States, at King’s Mountain, North Carolina, is no longer being mined although large reserves of lithium remain. Depending on size and attitude of the pegmatite, a variety of mining techniques are used, including artisanal surface mining, open-pit surface mining, small underground workings, and large underground operations using room-and-pillar design. In favorable circumstances, what would otherwise be gangue minerals (quartz, potassium feldspar, albite, and muscovite) can be mined along with lithium and (or) tantalum as coproducts.

Most LCT pegmatites are hosted in metamorphosed supracrustal rocks in the upper greenschist to lower amphibolite facies. Lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatite intrusions generally are emplaced late during orogeny, with emplacement being controlled by pre-existing structures. Typically, they crop out near evolved, peraluminous granites and leucogranites from which they are inferred to be derived by fractional crystallization. In cases where a parental granite pluton is not exposed, one is inferred to lie at depth. Lithium-cesium-tantalum LCT pegmatite melts are enriched in fluxing components including H2O, F, P, and B, which depress the solidus temperature, lower the density, and increase rates of ionic diffusion. This, in turn, enables pegmatites to form thin dikes and massive crystals despite having a felsic composition and temperatures that are significantly lower than ordinary granitic melts. Lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatites crystallized at remarkably low temperatures (about 350–550 °C) in a remarkably short time (days to years).

Lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatites form in orogenic hinterlands as products of plate convergence. Most formed during collisional orogeny (for example, Kings Mountain district, North Carolina). Specific causes of LCT pegmatite-related magmatism could include: ordinary arc processes; over thickening of continental crust during collision or subduction; slab breakoff during or after collision; slab delamination before, during, or after collision; and late collisional extensional collapse and consequent decompression melting. Lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatite deposits are present in all continents including Antarctica and in rocks spanning 3 billion years of Earth history. The global age distribution of LCT pegmatites is similar to those of common pegmatites, orogenic granites, and detrital zircons. Peak times of LCT pegmatite genesis at about 2640, 1800, 960, 485, and 310 Ma (million years before present) correspond to times of collisional orogeny and supercontinent assembly. Between these pulses were long intervals when few or no LCT pegmatites formed. These minima overlap with supercontinent tenures at ca. 2450–2225, 1625–1000, 875–725, and 250–200 Ma.

Exploration and assessment for LCT pegmatites are guided by a number of observations. In frontier areas where exploration has been minimal at best, the key first-order criteria are an orogenic hinterland setting, appropriate regional metamorphic grades, and the presence of evolved granites and common granitic pegmatites. New LCT pegmatites are most likely to be found near known deposits. Pegmatites tend to show a regional mineralogical and geochemical zoning pattern with respect to the inferred parental granite, with the greatest enrichment in the more distal pegmatites. Mineral-chemical trends in common pegmatites that can point toward an evolved LCT pegmatite include: increasing rubidium in potassium feldspar, increasing lithium in white mica, increasing manganese in garnet, and increasing tantalum and manganese in columbite-tantalite. Most LCT pegmatite bodies show a distinctive internal zonation featuring four zones: border, wall, intermediate (where lithium, cesium, and tantalum are generally concentrated), and core. This zonation is expressed both in cross section and map view; thus, what may appear to be a common pegmatite may instead be the edge of a mineralized body.

Neither lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatites nor their parental granites are likely to cause serious environmental concerns. Soils and country rock surrounding a LCT pegmatite, as well as waste from mining operations, may be enriched in characteristic elements relative to global average soil and bedrock values. These elements may include lithium, cesium, tantalum, beryllium, boron, fluorine, phosphorus, manganese, gallium, rubidium, niobium, tin, and hafnium. Among this suite of elements, however, the only ones that might present a concern for environmental health are beryllium and fluorine, which are included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water regulations with maximum contaminant levels of 4 micrograms per liter and 4 milligrams per liter, respectively.

Publication Year 2017
Title Mineral-deposit model for lithium-cesium-tantalum pegmatites
DOI 10.3133/sir20105070O
Authors Dwight C. Bradley, Andrew D. McCauley, Lisa L. Stillings
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2010-5070
Index ID sir20105070O
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center