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Revealing the conditions of Ni mineralization in the laterite profiles of New Caledonia: Insights from reactive geochemical transport modelling

Abstract : New Caledonia is one of the world's largest nickel laterite deposits that form from intense chemical and mechanical weathering of a peridotite bedrock. As a result of such a weathering process a subsequent downward migration of Si, Mg and Ni takes place, which eventually leads to redistribution of the elements in depth and over time depending on their mobility. Being released from ultramafic parent rock to groundwater, the mobility of nickel is to a great extent controlled by sorption, substitution and dissolution/precipitation processes. Therefore, the final profile of nickel enrichment is the result of the superposition of these possible fates of nickel. The way how Ni is redistributed in between them represents and defines its mineralization in laterite. Knowledge of these processes along with factors, controlling them appears to be a key to detailed understanding of laterite formation. In this study a numerical model, which solves the reaction-transport differential equations, is used to simulate the formation of laterite profile from ultramafic bedrock with particular emphasis on modelled Ni enrichment curve, its comparison with in situ observations, and detailed understanding of trace elements mobility. Since nickel deposits in New Caledonia is characterized by oxide and hydrous Mg silicate ores, three different concurrent fates of Ni deposition in a profile were taken into account in the modelling: i) Ni in a goethite crystal lattice, ii) Ni sorbed on weak and strong goethite sorption sites, and iii) Ni precipitated with silicates (garnierite). Simulations were performed using PHREEQC associated with llnl.dat thermodynamic database that has been edited in order to account garnierite minerals used in the calculations. The work outline is represented by: i) long term (10 Ma) simulation of nickel laterite formation and evolution, ii) analysis of mobility of the elements and understanding its controlling factors, iii) comparison of modelled and in situ Ni enrichment profile and analysis of nickel distribution in between different retention processes, iv) modelling and in depth understanding of these retention processes. The modelling reveals that the vertical progression of the pH front controls thickening of iron-rich zone, explains the vertical mobility of the elements and governs the Ni enrichment. Adsorption itself plays an important role in lateritization process retarding Ni mobility, but i) becomes significant in a narrow range of pH (slightly alkaline) due to competition of Mg and Ni for sorption sites and ii) does not explain such a high nickel content in limonite nowadays, suggesting that Ni is held in goethite mostly by stronger ties i.e. substituted for Fe in the crystal lattice of iron oxide. 1-D modelling appears to be a powerful tool in understanding the general behavior of trace elements upon the formation of laterite and at the same time reveals that locally Ni mineralizations should be explained by more complex processes, such as lateral transfers, convective flows and preferential pathways.
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Andrey Myagkiy, Laurent Truche, Michel Cathelineau, Fabrice Golfier. Revealing the conditions of Ni mineralization in the laterite profiles of New Caledonia: Insights from reactive geochemical transport modelling. Chemical Geology, Elsevier, 2017, 466, pp.274-284. ⟨10.1016/j.chemgeo.2017.06.018⟩. ⟨hal-02483085⟩

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