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Reconnaissance study of the major and trace element content of bauxite deposits in the Arkansas bauxite region, Saline and Pulaski Counties, central Arkansas

August 5, 2021

The Arkansas bauxite district, which comprises about 275 square miles (710 square kilometers) of central Arkansas, produced an order of magnitude more bauxite and alumina than the other bauxite districts in the United States combined. Bauxite was mined in the region continuously from 1898 to 1982. These bauxites are laterite deposits, formed from intensive in-place weathering of the exposed surface of the Granite Mountain pluton, a Late Cretaceous batholith composed mainly of nepheline syenite and lesser amounts of syenite. Nepheline syenite was the aluminum source for the bauxite and clay deposits that blanket the pluton. The early Eocene continental sedimentary rocks that contain and overlie the bauxite deposits indicate that central Arkansas had a warm tropical environment during bauxite formation.

Bauxite ores are the principal sources of aluminum. Some of the global bauxite deposits have been found to contain co-occurring metals that have essential applications in modern technologies. For example, bauxite is the largest global source of gallium (Ga), used in semiconductors, which is recovered as a byproduct of processing bauxite to recover alumina. Other critical metal commodities within some bauxites that reportedly have potential for byproduct recovery include niobium (Nb), scandium (Sc), and rare earth elements (REEs). Currently (2021), the United States is wholly dependent on imports for its supplies of bauxite for processing to produce alumina. The United States is also dependent on foreign sources of gallium, niobium, and scandium, as well for most of its domestic requirements of REEs.

For these reasons, samples were collected from Arkansas bauxite deposits, associated clays, mill residue wastes (respectively referred to as red muds and black sands), and the parent nepheline syenite to determine their elemental content, with a particular focus on gallium, niobium, scandium, and REEs. Each sample was analyzed for 60 elements; these data and the methods used are published as a U.S. Geological Survey data release.

The results indicate that, of the critical metals in bauxites, gallium is a potential byproduct from the central Arkansas bauxite deposits. The highest gallium concentrations occur in the raw bauxite ore, with an average concentration of 76 parts per million (ppm). Gallium partitions with alumina (the product) rather than into mine waste residues. Results indicate an average niobium content of 662 ppm in the Arkansas bauxite ores. Niobium progressively increases in concentration from parent syenite (247 ppm) to clays (315 ppm) and further from bauxite (662 ppm) to processed residues (1,075 ppm). Low concentrations of scandium were found in all samples, averaging 10 ppm or less in the parent rock (syenite), bauxite, clays, and processing residues. Modest concentrations of the light and heavy REEs were found in samples of bauxite ores, bauxitic clays and interbedded clays, syenite, and the residues of ore. The highest REE values were found in processed residues, with average concentrations of 613 ppm total light REEs and 130 ppm total heavy REEs. These concentrations suggest that additional processing to recover REEs is unlikely to be economic in the foreseeable future.