Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Still Wondering About Cu?

As a geology student several years ago, I had wondered why copper (chemical symbol Cu) shows up where it does.  I had wondered how copper gets to where it gets. I had found that copper could mineralize in rocks in certain areas of what is called skarn
Native Copper - scale in centimeters

These queries are turning out to be yet another chapter in my endlessly provocative geological quest:  How did that get there?
With this WATCH FOR ROCKS copper mini-series, I honestly attempt to answer these myriad questions in ways that won’t compel anyone to leave the building.
My previous post addressed two burning questions:
First: What is a skarn?
Second: What does quartz monzonite (a type of igneous intrusion present in my southern Utah study area) have to do with the skarn?

So now we arrive at the Third question — How are skarns related to copper mineralization, anyway?
Most major ores of important metals such as copper, lead and silver are sulfides. Sulfides are most commonly found in hydrothermal sulfide deposits, either in veins or disseminated throughout the deposit. While native copper was a source for the metal early in the development of human civilization, now most copper is extracted from sulfide minerals.
What is an ore?
“It is the naturally occurring material from which a mineral or minerals of economic value can be extracted at a reasonable profit.” 
Fourth questions (a two-fer!) — How do sulfides form? How do we get copper from them?
MM900285332In a nutshell: Transition metals (such as Fe (Iron), Zn 
 (Zinc), Cu (Copper), Pb (Lead), Co (Cobalt), and others) bond with sulfur by forming molecular orbitals that share electrons to satisfy the valence requirements of the transition metal atoms.
Yikes! Chemistry rears its ugly head!
Alas, there’s more…
Sulfides and related minerals are characteristic of hydrothermal vein and replacement deposits.
Essential features of hydrothermal systems include:
A source for the metals and other elements precipitated by the water
Migration pathways
As you might suspect, these features (of hydrothermal systems) have features:
1— Water can be evolved from magma, be released during metamorphism (I could really go on about this one…), originate as rain or snow (meteoric), and that all-time favorite, be trapped in sediment pores (connate).
2— Heat is often provided by an igneous intrusion; it also can come from depth.
3—There are several ideas for a source of metals and other minerals precipitated by the water. Metals, sulfur, and other elements in the water may be derived from the crystallizing magma or they may be leached out of a large volume of country rock by the water.
The presence of the metals may also come about through ionic diffusion (ack!) from an unknown source (porphyry deposit?) or by gaseous emanation (but of what, from where?).
4— Fluids commonly flow along migration pathways through rocks along fractures, faults, and normal pore spaces.
5— Minerals may precipitate either by a)filling void spaces or by b)replacing other minerals in the rock through which the fluids flow. As the fluids migrate away from the crystallizing magma, they can encounter chemically reactive rock such as limestone, which may trigger precipitation of metal ions from solution.  
Circulating fluids can scavenge elements from the rocks like a liquid Pac-man swimming through a stream. They can dissolve previously produced mineralization and re-precipitate those minerals. 

The ultimate result here may be a progressively concentrated volume of valuable minerals. 
Next post – the final question along with pictures of magnificent minerals:
What are the relationships between copper and many other magnificent minerals such as magnetite, chalcopyrite, cuprite, and chrysocolla?
C-u then!
IMG_5529Pyrite QuartzGalena Pyrite with Quartz (can you find the Galena?) - scale in inches

Selected Reference:
Wray, W.B., 2006, Mines and Geology of the Rocky and Beaver Lake Districts, Beaver County, Utah in Bon, R.L., Gloyn, R.W., and Park, G.M., editors, Mining Districts of Utah: Utah Geological Association Publication 32, p. 183-285.


  1. OK, I was right with you until the "source of metals" part. Not being a geologist, there's somethings I just have to take on faith. Look forward to the next answer, and I never tire of looking at rocks or photos of them.

  2. Gaelyn - Great comment!

    Yeah, that "source" can be a sticky concept - first realize that the basic elements themselves (gold, copper, silver, lead, sulfur, and actually anything in the periodic table) exist in the core-mantle-crust (and ultimately have, for billions of years), and then you've got it made.

    So the question is - Where do the metals and minerals COME FROM that are in the hydrothermal systems?

    We know that they bond with sulfur - but how does everything get "there?"
    #3 lists possibilities - I haven't researched this in more depth, so perhaps there are more current theories out there (after 2006).

  3. I'm starting to better understand this. I even got out my Essentials of Geology book and have been reading and learning.

    Please stop by my blog to pick up an award.

  4. Gaelyn - This is so wild that you were compelled to re-read your gology book after reading my blog! This is too cool.
    Plus thank you for the award! I hope I can figure out how to put it in my sidebar for permanent display. Thanks for thinking of me!