How Does Boiling in the Earth’s Crust Influence Metal Speciation and Transport?

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Keith Kam, Independent Schools Foundation Academy, Pokfulam, Hong Kong and Kono Lemke, University of Hong Kong, Department of Earth Sciences, Hong Kong, Hong Kong
The presence of large quantities of precious metals, such as gold and copper, near the Earth’s surface (upper crust) is commonly attributed to transport in aqueous solution and precipitation upon variations in temperature and pressure. As a consequence, gold exploration is closely linked to solution chemistry, i.e. hydrothermal processes involving aqueous fluids with densities of around unity. However, as crustal fluids buoyantly ascend, boiling produces a coexisting low-density aqueous liquid with fundamentally different physical and chemical properties, and a, most importantly, a high affinity for coinage metals (Heinrich et al., Econ Geol., 1992, 87, 1566).

From recent experimental studies of Au (Hurtig and Williams-Jones, 2014, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta,, 127, 304), we know that metal speciation in this low-density phase differs fundamentally from that observed in bulk solution, clearly, with important implications for Au, and metal speciation in general, transport and ore concentrations processes (these processes would also be operable in industrial geothermal plants given the quite special solvent properties of steam). In brief, this study focuses on the speciation of select metal halides in bulk solution as well as in water vapor, and is driven by our need to understand the solvent properties of around 2.0x109 cubic kilometers of free water (or 2,500 times as much water as stored in all lakes and rivers) present in the Earth’s crust. The scope of this study has particular applications in the geothermal and oil industries, as both deal with high temperature low-density aqueous fluids. Understanding how metal halide species behave upon boiling can also provide insight into how metals, such as copper and silver, coat turbine equipment and steam piping in geothermal plants, ultimately rendering these components inoperable. This study will also provide preliminary results from mass spectrometric experiments of transition metal halides, and will be augmented with results from molecular simulations of metal halides that are aimed at characterizing the nature (i.e. relativistic structures and energies) of metal clusters in water vapor.