Platinum-group element distribution in base-metal sulfides of the Merensky Reef from the eastern and western Bushveld Complex, South Africa

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Base-metal sulfides in magmatic Ni-Cu-PGE deposits are important carriers of platinum-group elements (PGE). The distribution and concentrations of PGE in pentlandite, pyrrhotite, chalcopyrite, and pyrite were determined in samples from the mineralized portion of four Merensky Reef intersections from the eastern and western Bushveld Complex. Electron microprobe analysis was used for major elements, and in situ laser ablation inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) for trace elements (PGE, Ag, and Au). Whole rock trace element analyses were performed on representative samples to obtain mineralogical balances. In Merensky Reef samples from the western Bushveld, both Pt and Pd are mainly concentrated in the upper chromitite stringer and its immediate vicinity. Samples from the eastern Bushveld reveal more complex distribution patterns. In situ LA-ICP-MS analyses of PGE in sulfides reveal that pentlandite carries distinctly elevated PGE contents, whereas pyrrhotite and chalcopyrite only contain very low PGE concentrations. Pentlandite is the principal host of Pd and Rh in the ores. Palladium and Rh concentrations in pentlandite reach up to 700 and 130 ppm, respectively, in the samples from the eastern Bushveld, and up to 1,750 ppm Pd and up to 1,000 ppm Rh in samples from the western Bushveld. Only traces of Pt are present in the base-metal sulfides (BMS). Pyrrhotite contains significant though generally low amounts of Ru, Os, and Ir, but hardly any Pd or Rh. Chalcopyrite contains most of the Ag but carries only extremely low PGE concentrations. Mass balance calculations performed on the Merensky Reef samples reveal that in general, pentlandite in the feldspathic pyroxenite and the pegmatoidal feldspathic pyroxenite hosts up to 100 % of the Pd and Rh and smaller amounts (10–40 %) of the Os, Ir, and Ru. Chalcopyrite and pyrrhotite usually contain less than 10 % of the whole rock PGE. The remaining PGE concentrations, and especially most of the Pt (up to 100 %), are present in the form of discrete platinum-group minerals such as cooperite/braggite, sperrylite, moncheite, and isoferroplatinum. Distribution patterns of whole rock Cu, Ni, and S versus whole rock Pd and Pt show commonly distinct offsets. The general sequence of “offset patterns” of PGE and BMS maxima, in the order from bottom to top, is Pd in pentlandite → Pd in whole rock → (Cu, Ni, and S). The relationship is not that straightforward in general; some of the reef sequences studied only partially show similar trends or are more complex. In general, however, the highest Pd concentrations in pentlandite appear to be related to the earliest, volumetrically rather small sulfide liquids at the base of the Merensky Reef sequence. A possible explanation for the offset patterns may be Rayleigh fractionation.

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Anglo American Platinum is thanked for providing the drill cores, analytical data and logistic assistance. Especially Jacques Roberts supported us through logistical help, continuous interest and enthusiasm with regard to the study. Thanks to Nikolay Rudashevsky who conducted EPD, HS, and SEM analyses on selected samples from the eastern Bushveld and provided us with an excellent report on the PGM assemblages. Belinda Godel and Sarah Dare provided helpful and constructive reviews which are acknowledged with thanks.

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Correspondence to Inga Osbahr.

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Osbahr, I., Klemd, R., Oberthür, T. et al. Platinum-group element distribution in base-metal sulfides of the Merensky Reef from the eastern and western Bushveld Complex, South Africa. Miner Deposita 48, 211–232 (2013) doi:10.1007/s00126-012-0413-8

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  • Merensky Reef
  • Bushveld Complex
  • South Africa
  • Platinum-group elements
  • Base-metal sulfides
  • Trace element distribution patterns