For nearly 50 years, carbonatites have been the primary source of niobium and rare earth elements (REEs), in particular the light REEs, including La, Ce, Pr, and Nd. Carbonatites are a relatively rare type of igneous rock composed of greater than 50 vol % primary carbonate minerals, primarily calcite and/or dolomite, and contain the highest concentrations of REEs of any igneous rocks. Although there are more than 500 known carbonatites in the world, currently only four are being mined for REEs: the Bayan Obo, Maoniuping, and Dalucao deposits in China, and the Mountain Pass deposit in California, United States. The carbonatite-derived laterite deposit at Mount Weld in Western Australia is also a REE producer. In addition to REEs, carbonatite-related deposits are the primary source of Nb, with the Araxá deposit, a carbonatite-derived laterite in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, being the dominant producer. Other commodities produced from carbonatite-related deposits include phosphates, iron, fluorite, copper, vanadium, titanium, uranium, and calcite.
Types of ores include those formed as primary magmatic minerals, from late magmatic hydrothermal fluids, and by supergene enrichment in weathered horizons. Although the principal REE-bearing mineral phases include fluorocarbonates (bastnäsite, parisite, and synchysite), hydrated carbonates (ancylite), and phosphates (monazite and apatite), the dominant mineral exploited at most mines is bastnäsite. Bastnäsite typically is coarse grained and contains approximately 75 wt % RE2O3 (rare earth oxides; REOs). Processes responsible for REE enrichment include fractional crystallization of the carbonatitic magma, enrichment of REEs in orthomagmatic or hydrothermal fluids and subsequent precipitation or subsolidus metasomatic redistribution of REEs, and breakdown of primary carbonatitic mineral phases by chemical weathering and sequestration of REEs in secondary minerals or in association with clays. Carbonatites are primarily associated with continental rifting, but some carbonatites are associated with orogenic activity. Although there is debate on how carbonatite magmas are generated, the parental magma and REEs are clearly derived from mantle sources.