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Scandium in Australian Laterites: The Lesser-Known Rare Earth Element

Scandium in Australian Laterites The Lesser-Known Rare Earth Element

While most discussions about rare earth elements (REEs) focus on the lanthanides and yttrium, scandium often flies under the radar. However, this lightweight metal is gaining increasing attention due to its potential applications in aerospace, electronics, and clean energy technologies. With its unique geological settings, Australia is emerging as a global hotspot for scandium resources, particularly within lateritic deposits.

The Geological Setting of Australian Scandium-Rich Laterites

Unlike other REEs typically associated with alkaline igneous rocks or carbonatites, scandium shows a strong affinity with mafic and ultramafic rocks in Australia. The most significant scandium concentrations are found in laterites developed over these rock types, particularly in eastern Australia.

Distribution of scandium-bearing laterite

These laterites formed through intense weathering of Phanerozoic mafic-ultramafic intrusions, primarily in the Lachlan Orogen of New South Wales and correlative rocks in Queensland. The parent rocks are often described as having ‘alpine-‘, ‘ophiolite-‘, or ‘Alaskan-type’ affinities, indicating their complex tectonic history.

Key Australian Scandium Deposits

Several lateritic deposits in Australia have garnered attention for their scandium potential:

  1. Lucknow (Queensland): Part of the NORNICO Project in the Greenvale region, Lucknow boasts a resource of 6.24 Mt @ 169 g/t Sc, including a higher-grade zone of 4.15 Mt @ 205 g/t Sc.
  2. Greenvale (Queensland): Located in the same region as Lucknow, Greenvale has a resource of 8.0 Mt @ 33 g/t Sc, along with significant nickel and cobalt content.
  3. Nyngan (New South Wales): Situated in the Lachlan Orogen, Nyngan is one of Australia’s most advanced scandium projects.
  4. Syerston (New South Wales): Another Lachlan Orogen deposit, Syerston contains scandium alongside nickel and cobalt resources.

Geological Characteristics of Scandium-Rich Laterites

The scandium mineralisation in these deposits shares several standard features:

  1. Host Rocks: The laterites developed over serpentinised ultramafic rocks, often associated with ophiolite complexes.
  2. Weathering Profile: A typical profile includes a limonitic upper zone, followed by a saprolitic zone, grading into fresh bedrock.
  3. Scandium Distribution: Highest grades are usually found in the limonitic zone, with concentrations decreasing with depth.
  4. Associated Elements: Nickel and cobalt are often enriched with scandium, creating the potential for multi-element deposits.
  5. Mineralogy: Scandium doesn’t form discrete minerals in these deposits but is typically adsorbed onto iron oxides and clays.

Genesis of Scandium Enrichment

The enrichment of scandium in these laterites is a result of complex weathering processes:

  1. Initial Concentration: Scandium is present in trace amounts in the primary ultramafic rocks, substituting for iron or magnesium in silicate minerals.
  2. Weathering and Leaching: As the rocks weather, more mobile elements leached away, while scandium remained in the residual material.
  3. Adsorption: Scandium is adsorbed onto newly formed iron oxides (mainly goethite) and clay minerals in the laterite profile.
  4. Supergene Enrichment: In some cases, downward percolation of scandium-bearing solutions can lead to further concentration at the base of the laterite profile.

Economic Significance and Challenges

The discovery and development of these scandium-rich laterites position Australia as a potential global leader in scandium production. However, several challenges remain:

  1. Processing Technology: Extracting scandium from laterites requires specialised hydrometallurgical techniques, which are still being optimised.
  2. Market Development: The scandium market is still nascent, with limited current demand. Producers need to stimulate market growth to justify large-scale production.
  3. Co-Product Potential: The economic viability of these deposits often relies on the recovery of associated metals like nickel and cobalt.
  4. Environmental Considerations: Laterite mining and processing can have significant ecological impacts, requiring careful management.

Conclusion

Scandium-rich laterites in Australia represent a unique and potentially valuable resource. As technology advances and markets develop, these deposits could be crucial in meeting global demand for scandium. Their development diversifies Australia’s mineral exports and supports the growth of high-tech industries reliant on this rare and versatile metal.

The story of scandium in Australian laterites is a testament to the country’s diverse mineral endowment and the ongoing importance of geological research in identifying and characterising new resources. As we move towards a more technologically advanced and sustainable future, these deposits may be a vital piece of the puzzle.

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