Laterite - Formation


Tropical weathering (laterization) is a prolonged process of chemical weathering which produces a wide variety in the thickness, grade, chemistry and ore mineralogy of the resulting soils. The initial products of weathering are essentially kaolinized rocks called saprolites. A period of active laterization extended from about the mid-Tertiary to the mid-Quaternary periods (35 to 1.5 million years ago). Statistical analyses show that the transition in the mean and variance levels of 18O during the middle of the Pleistocene was abrupt. It seems this abrupt change was global and mainly represents an increase in ice mass; at about the same time an abrupt decrease in sea surface temperatures occurred; these two changes indicate a sudden global cooling. The rate of laterization would have decreased with the abrupt cooling of the earth. Weathering in tropical climates continues to this day, at a reduced rate.

Laterites are formed from the leaching of parent sedimentary rocks (sandstones, clays, limestones); metamorphic rocks (schists, gneisses, migmatites); igneous rocks (granites, basalts, gabbros, peridotites); and mineralized proto-ores; which leaves the more insoluble ions, predominantly iron and aluminium. The mechanism of leaching involves acid dissolving the host mineral lattice, followed by hydrolysis and precipitation of insoluble oxides and sulfates of iron, aluminium and silica under the high temperature conditions of a humid sub-tropical monsoon climate. An essential feature for the formation of laterite is the repetition of wet and dry seasons. Rocks are leached by percolating rain water during the wet season; the resulting solution containing the leached ions is brought to the surface by capillary action during the dry season. These ions form soluble salt compounds which dry on the surface; these salts are washed away during the next wet season. Laterite formation is favoured in low topographical reliefs of gentle crests and plateaus which prevents erosion of the surface cover. The reaction zone where rocks are in contact with water – from the lowest to highest water table levels – is progressively depleted of the easily leached ions of sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. A solution of these ions can have the correct pH to preferentially dissolve silicon oxide rather than the aluminium oxides and iron oxides.

The mineralogical and chemical compositions of laterites are dependant on their parent rocks. Laterites consist mainly of quartz and oxides of titanium, zircon, iron, tin, aluminium and manganese, which remain during the course of weathering. Quartz is the most abundant relic mineral from the parent rock. Laterites vary significantly according to their location, climate and depth. The main host minerals for nickel and cobalt can be either iron oxides, clay minerals or manganese oxides. Iron oxides are derived from mafic igneous rocks and other iron-rich rocks; bauxites are derived from granitic igneous rock and other iron-poor rocks. Nickel laterites occur in zones of the earth which experienced prolonged tropical weathering of ultramafic rocks containing the ferro-magnesian minerals olivine, pyroxene, and amphibole.

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