Rare earth elements and lithium:
Québec's new wave of mineral exploration
Patrice Roy and Charles Gosselin
There has been a surge of interest in the mineral exploration of rare earth elements and rare metals, such as lithium. Demand is soaring as these metals find their way into an increasing number of high tech applications in the energy, transportation, and telecommunications sectors. Plus, in early September 2009, China —which produces 95% of the world’s rare earth elements—announced that it intends to cut production and exports so as to protect its resources.
Lithium, the lightest solid chemical element, is soft, silvery white in color, and easily oxidized upon contact with air and water. It belongs to the alkali group of metals. Lithium is used primarily in glass and ceramics, lubricants, polymers, and in pharmacology. Its consumption has skyrocketed recently to meet demand for batteries, especially lithium-ion types used by cell phones, computers, tools, and electric and hybrid vehicles.
Lithium is found primarily in two types of deposits: natural brine found in lithium-rich evaporite basins and in spodumene pegmatites associated with peralkaline intrusive complexes. At present, most lithium comes from South American brines. In 2007, according to data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Chile was the leading lithium producer (with 43% of worldwide production), followed by Australia (27%), China (12%), and Argentina (12%). Russia, the U.S., Canada, and Zimbabwe are also significant producers of lithium. Bolivia is home to the largest non-operating reserves of lithium, with more than Chile and Argentina. Extracted lithium—in the form of lithium carbonate—sells for approximately US$3 a pound.
In Québec, lithium mineralizations are found primarily in peralkaline granite pegmatites rich in Li-Be-Ta-Cs-Rb (type 1) (PDF Format, 4 Mb). Lithium is most often found in association with spodumene but also with other minerals such as petalite and lepidolite. Numerous showings have been identified in Baie-James in the vicinity of the Frotet-Evans volcanic-sedimentary belts east of Lac Mistassini, Eastmain, and south of the Opinaca reservoir (particularly Lithium One’s Cyr claim). Other showings have been identified in the Pontiac Subprovince at Témiscamingue, and around the Preissac and La Corne batholiths in Abitibi. The Québec Lithium mine (production of 907,200 tons at 2.4% LiO2) operated at La Corne from 1955 to 1965, and today Canada Lithium Corp. is engaged in exploration there with the goal of resuming production.
Rare earth elements
Rare earth elements (REE) are comprised of 17 chemical elements found within the earth’s crust in relative abundance: lanthanides (15 elements), scandium, and yttrium. They can be subdivided into two groups, light rare earth elements, which are more prevalent, and heavy rare earth elements, which are rarer. REEs are used in a host of applications, particularly in oil refining and the production of glass, ceramics, rechargeable batteries, wind turbines, iPods, televisions, high efficiency light bulbs, radar systems, catalytic converters, superconductors, and permanent magnets (especially those used in electric motors). Rare earth element prices vary enormously depending on demand and scarcity, with heavy REEs generally costing more.
Rare earth element mineralizations are typically found in association with alkaline or peralkaline intrusive complexes (granite, syenite, carbonatite, pegmatite), polymetallic iron oxide mineralizations, monazite placers or paleoplacers, and skarns. Bastnaesite and monazite are the most widely mined REEs.
In 2007, more than 96% of REEs came from China (120,000 tons, USGS, 2009), with remaining world production (4,000 tons) coming primarily from India, Brazil, and Malaysia. At present, Canada does not have any operational REE facilities. However, advanced exploration is under way at two locations, the Thor Lake deposit in the Northwest Territories and Hoidas Lake deposit in northern Saskatchewan.
In Québec, the main REE mineralizations are in pegmatites associated with peralkaline intrusive complexes rich in REEs, Y, Zr, and F (type 3), primarily in the Lac Brisson (Strange Lake) area in the Churchill Province, in Nunavik, and in the Kipawa sector in the Grenville Province, in Témiscamingue. Carbonatites intrusions rich in Nb, Ta, REE, and P—like the Niocan deposit in Oka and the Niobec Mine in Lac-Saint-Jean—often contain substantial REE concentrations. Carbonatites containing REEs have also been identified in Abitibi and in the Labrador Trough (type 2). On a worldwide level, this type of intrusion represents a large source of light REEs (bastnaesite). Mineralizations in copper-gold-iron oxide (as at the Olympic Dam), rich in REEs, Y, and U, have also been found in the Côte-Nord’s Manitou-Wakeham region (type 5). In addition, REEs are present in pegmatites rich in U and Th in the Grenville Province and northeast Superior Province (type 6), and again in the calc-silicate rock (skarns) in the south of Grenville Province (type 7).
MRNF Publications available in the SIGEOM-EXAMINE database
The compilation and typology of Québec’s primary rare metal mineralizations that are presented in this article and in Figure 1 come from the following publications:
BOILY, M. and GOSSELIN, C., 2004, Les principaux types de minéralisations en métaux rares (Y-Zr-Nb-Ta-Be-Li-ETR) du Québec, Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune du Québec, ET 2004-01, 46 pages.
GOSSELIN, C., BOILY, M., BEAUMIER, M., LEDUC, M., DION, D.-J., GARNEAU, C., and THÉRIAULT, R., 2003, Les minéralisations en métaux rares (Y-Zr-Nb-Ta-Be-Li-ETR) au Québec, Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune du Québec, DV 2003-03, 1 poster, 1 CD-rom.
In addition, MRNF has published a number of other documents on regions that offer good potential for REE or lithium exploration:
STE-CROIX, L. and DOUCET, P., 2001, Potentiel en métaux rares dans les sous-provinces de l’Abitibi et du Pontiac, Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune du Québec, PRO 2001-08, 14 pages.
BELLEHUMEUR, C. and JÉBRAK, M., 1995, Géochimie des sédiments de lac de la Moyenne-Côte-Nord (sélection des composantes anomales), Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune du Québec , MB 95-02 , 80 pages.
JÉBRAK, M., BELLEHUMEUR, C., and NORMAND, C., 1990, Dispersion de l’or et des terres rares dans les ruisseaux de la Gatineau, Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune du Québec, MB 90-29, 98 pages.
Other general references
SIDEX Strategic Diversification Newsletter on rare earth elements (Exploring for lanthanides in Quebec), March 2003
Documents published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS):