mineral/energy resources

Mineral and Energy Resources

Contents of Entire Course 

Mineral Resources
Origin of Mineral Deposits
Mineral Deposits and Plate Tectonics
Energy Resources
Solar Energy
Nuclear Energy
Fossil Fuels
Formation of Petroleum
Oil Traps
Distribution of Petroleum
Oil Shale and Tar Sands

adapted to HTML from lecture notes of Prof. Stephen A. Nelson Tulane University

Mineral Resources

Almost all Earth Materials are used by humans for something. We require metals for making machines, sands and gravels for making roads and buildings, sand for making computer chips, limestone and gypsum for making concrete, clays for making ceramics, gold, silver, copper and aluminum for making electric circuits, and diamonds and corundum (sapphire, ruby, emerald) for abrasives and jewelry.

A mineral deposit is a volume of rock enriched in one or more materials. In this sense a mineral refers to a useful material, a definition that is different from the way we defined a mineral back in Chapter 2. Here the word mineral can be any substance that comes from the Earth.

Finding and exploiting mineral deposits requires the application of the principles of geology that you have learned throughout this course. Some minerals are used as they are found in the ground, i.e. they require no further processing or very little processing. For example - gemstones, sand, gravel, and salt (halite). Most minerals must be processed before they are used. For example:

  • Iron is the found in abundance in minerals, but the process of extracting iron from different minerals varies in cost depending on the mineral. It is least costly to extract the iron from oxide minerals like hematite (Fe2O3), magnetite (Fe3O4), or limonite [Fe(OH)]. Although iron also occurs in olivines, pyroxenes, amphiboles, and biotite, the concentration of iron in these minerals is less, and cost of extraction is increased because strong bonds between iron, silicon, and oxygen must be broken.

  • Aluminum is the third most abundant mineral in the Earth's crust. It occurs in the most common minerals of the crust - the feldspars (NaAlSi3O8, KalSi3O8, & CaAl2Si2O8, but the cost of extracting the Aluminum from these minerals is high. Thus, deposits containing the mineral gibbsite [Al(OH)3], are usually sought. This explains why recycling of Aluminum is cost effective, since the Aluminum does not have to be separated from oxygen or silicon.
  • Because such things as extraction costs, manpower costs, and energy costs vary with time and from country to country, what constitutes an economically viable deposit of minerals varies considerably in time and place. In general, the higher the concentration of the substance, the more economical it is to mine. Thus we define an ore as a mineral deposit from which one or more valuable substances can be extracted economically. An ore deposit will consist of ore minerals, that contain the valuable substance.

    Gangue minerals are minerals that occur in the deposit but do not contain the valuable substance
    Since economics is what controls the grade or concentration of the substance in a deposit that makes the deposit profitable to mine, different substances require different concentrations to be profitable.. But, the concentration that can be economically mined changes due to economic conditions such as demand for the substance and the cost of extraction.


    For every substance we can determine the concentration necessary in a mineral deposit for profitable mining. By dividing this economical concentration by the average crustal abundance for that substance, we can determine a value called the concentration factor. The table below lists average crustal abundances and concentration factors for some of the important materials that are commonly sought. For example, Al, which has an average crustal abundance of 8%, has a concentration factor of 3 to 4. This means that an economic deposit of Aluminum must contain between 3 and 4 times the average crustal abundance, that is between 24 and 32% Aluminum, to be economical

    Substance Average Crustal Abundance Concentration Factor
    Al (Aluminum) 8.0%


    3 to 4
    Fe (Iron) 5.8% 6 to7
    Ti (Titanium) 0.86% 25 to 100
    Cr (Chromium) 0.0096% 4,000 to 5,000
    Zn (Zinc) 0.0082% 300
    Cu (Copper) 0.0058% 100 to 200
    Ag (Silver) 0.000008% ~1000
    Pt (Platinum) 0.0000005% 600
    Au (Gold) 0.0000002% 4,000 to 5,000
    U (Uranium) 0.00016% 500 to 1000

    Note that we will not likely ever run out of a useful substance, since we can always find deposits of any substance that have lower concentrations than are currently economical. If the supply of currently economical deposits is reduced, the price will increase and the concentration factor will increase

    Origin of Mineral Deposits

    Mineral deposits can be classified on the basis of the mechanism responsible for concentrating the valuable substance.

  • Hydrothermal Mineral Deposits - Concentration by hot aqueous (water-rich) fluids flowing through fractures and pore spaces in rocks.

  • Hydrothermal deposits are produced when groundwater circulates to depth and heats up either by coming near a hot igneous body at depth or by circulating to great depth along the geothermal gradient. Such hot water can dissolve valuable substances throughout a large volume of rock. As the hot water moves into cooler areas of the crust, the dissolved substances are precipitated from the hot water solution. If the cooling takes place rapidly, such as might occur in open fractures or upon reaching a body of cool surface water, then precipitation will take place over a limited area, resulting in a concentration of the substance attaining a higher value than was originally present in the rocks through which the water passed.
    Examples: Examples:
    Mineral Deposits and Plate Tectonics oresplttect.jpg

    Because different types of mineral deposits form in different environments, plate tectonics plays a critical role in the location of different geological environments. The diagram to the right shows the different mineral deposits that occur in different tectonic environments.

    Energy Resources

    Energy reaches the surface of the Earth from two main sources, and thus allows us to divide energy into two types.

    In reality, both types are nuclear energy because they involve the energy that holds atoms together.

    For the purposes of this course we will classify energy resources into these two groups and further subdivide each group into the basic energy sources that can be exploited by human beings.

    Solar Energy

  • Energy derived directly from the Sun
  • Direct solar energy - used to heat water and homes - can be used to generate electricity with solar cells*.

  • Wind Energy - Solar energy causes heating of the atmosphere that results in convection of air and produces winds.

  • Hydroelectric Energy* - derived from the Sun because the Sun causes evaporation of the oceans. Convection of the atmosphere moves the evaporated water to higher elevations where it can then run down hill and be used to generate electricity.
  • Energy derived indirectly from the Sun


    Nuclear Energy Geothermal Energy* - Decay of radioactive elements has produced heat throughout Earth history. It is this heat that causes the temperature to increase with depth in the Earth and is responsible for melting of mantle rocks to form magmas. Magmas can carry this upward into the crust. Groundwater circulating in the vicinity of igneous intrusions carries the heat back toward the surface. If this hot water can be tapped, it can be used directly to heat homes, or if trapped at great depth under pressure it can be turned into steam which will expand and drive a turbine to generate electricity.

    Direct Nuclear Energy* - Radioactive Uranium is concentrated and made into fuel rods that generate large amounts of heat as a result of radioactive decay. This heat is used to turn water into steam. Expansion of the steam can then be used to drive a turbine and generate electricity. Once proposed as a cheap, clean, and safe way to generate energy, Nuclear power has come under some disfavor. Costs of making sure nuclear power plants are clean and safe and the problem of disposing of radioactive wastes, which are unsafe, as well as questions about the safety of the plants under human care, have contributed to this disfavour

    In the above list, sources of energy that require geological knowledge for exploitation are marked with an asterisk (*). While using direct solar energy to heat water and homes does not require geologic knowledge, the making of solar cells does, because the material to make such cells requires knowledge of specific mineral deposits. Hydroelectric energy requires geologic knowledge in order to make sure that dams are built in areas where they will not collapse and harm human populations. Finding fossil fuels and geothermal energy certainly requires geologic knowledge. Direct nuclear energy requires geologists to find deposits of uranium to generate the fuels, geologists to find sites for nuclear power plants that will not fall apart due to such things as earthquakes, landslides, floods, or volcanic eruptions, and requires geologists to help determine safe storage sites for nuclear waste products.  In this course we will concentrate on Fossil Fuels.

    Fossil Fuels

    The origin of fossil fuels, and biomass energy in general, starts with photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the most important chemical reaction to us as human beings, because without it, we could not. Photosynthesis is the reaction that combines water and carbon dioxide from the Earth and its atmosphere with solar energy to form organic molecules that make up plants and oxygen essential for respiration. Because all life forms depend on plants for nourishment, either directly or indirectly, photosynthesis is the basis for life on Earth. The chemical reaction is so important, that everyone should know it as it is the way plants produce food from inorganic materials and is the basis for the vast majority of the food chain.


    Note that if the reaction runs in reverse, it produces energy. Thus when oxygen is added to organic material, either through decay by reaction with oxygen in the atmosphere or by adding oxygen directly by burning, energy is produced, and water and carbon dioxide return to the Earth or its atmosphere.

    To produce a fossil fuel, the organic matter must be rapidly buried in the Earth so that it does not oxidize (react with oxygen in the atmosphere). Then a series of slow chemical reactions occur which turn the organic molecules into hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are complex organic molecules that consist of chains of hydrogen and carbon.
    Petroleum (oil and natural gas) consists of many different such hydrocarbons, but the most important of these are a group known as the paraffins. Paraffins have the general chemical formula:

    CnH2n+2  As the value of n in the formula increases, the following compounds are produced:

    Formation of Petroleum

    The organic matter that eventually becomes petroleum is derived from photosynthetic microscopic organisms, like plankton and bacteria, originally deposited along with clays in the oceans. The resulting rocks are usually shales, yet, most petroleum occurs in much more permeable rocks like sandstones, limestones, or highly fractured rock. Thus, it is apparent that petroleum migrates, like groundwater, and accumulates in these more permeable rocks.

    The process of petroleum formation involves several steps:

    As a result of compaction of the sediments containing the petroleum, the oil and natural gas are forced out and migrate into permeable rock. Migration is similar to groundwater flow.
    Oil Traps

    Because oil and natural gas have a low density they will migrate upward through the Earth and accumulate in a reservoir only if a geologic structure is present to trap the petroleum. Geologic structures wherein impermeable rocks occur above the permeable reservoir rock are required. The job of petroleum geologists searching for petroleum reservoirs, is to find conditions near the Earth's surface where such traps might occur. Oil traps can be divided into those that form as a result of geologic structures like folds and faults, called structural traps, and those that form as a result of stratigraphic relationships between rock units, called stratigraphic traps. If petroleum has migrated into a reservoir formed by one of these traps, note that the petroleum, like groundwater, will occur in the pore spaces of the rock. Natural gas will occur above the oil, which in turn will overly water in the pore spaces of the reservoir. This occurs because the density of natural gas is lower than that of oil, which is lower than that of water.

    Structural Traps
    Anticlines - If a permeable rocks like a sandstone or limestone is sandwiched between impermeable rock layers like shales or mudstones, and the rocks are folded into an anticline, petroleum can migrate upward in the permeable reservoir rocks, and will occur in the hinge region of the anticline.


    Since anticlines in the subsurface can often be found by looking at the orientation of rocks on the surface, anticlinal traps were among the first to be exploited by petroleum geologists. Note that synclines will not form an oil trap because oil must rise on top of the trapped water.

    Faults - If faulting can juxtapose permeable and impermeable rocks so that the permeable rocks always have impermeable rocks above them, then an oil trap can form. Note that both normal faults and reverse faults can form this type of oil trap. Since faults are often exposed at the Earth's surface, the locations of such traps can often be found from surface exploration.


    Salt Domes - During the Jurassic Period, the Gulf of Mexico was a restricted basin. This resulted in high evaporation rates & deposition of a thick layer of salt on the bottom of the basin. The salt was eventually covered with clastic sediments. But salt has a lower density than most sediments and is more ductile than most sedimentary rocks. Because of its low density, the salt moved upward through the sedimentary rocks as salt domes. The intrusion of the salt deforms the sedimentary strata along its margins, folding it upward to create oil traps. Because some salt domes get close to the surface, surface sediments overlying the salt dome are often domed upward, making the locations of the subsurface salt and possible oil traps easy to locate.


    Stratigraphic Traps

    Unconformities - An angular unconformity might form a suitable oil trap if the layers above the unconformity are impermeable rocks and permeable rocks layer are sandwiched between  impermeable layers in the inclined strata below the unconformity. This type of trap is more difficult to locate because the unconformity may not be exposed at the Earth's surface


    Locating possible traps like this usually requires subsurface exploration techniques, like drilling exploratory wells or using seismic waves to see what the structure looks like

    Lenses - Layers of sand often form lens like bodies that pinch out. If the rocks surrounding these lenses of sand are impermeable and deformation has produced inclined strata, oil and natural gas can migrate into the sand bodies and will be trapped by the impermeable rocks. This kind of trap is also difficult to locate from the surface, and requires subsurface exploration techniques


    Distribution of Petroleum
    The distribution of rocks containing petroleum widespread. Still, since reservoirs of petroleum result from upward migration and since older rocks have had more time to erode or metamorphose, most reservoirs of petroleum occur in younger rocks. Most petroleum is produced from rocks of Cenozoic age, with less produced from rocks of Mesozoic and Paleozoic age.


    Oil Shale and Tar Sands


    Coal is a sedimentary/metanorphic rock produced in swamps where there is a large-scale accumulation of organic matter from plants. As the plants die they accumulate to first become peat. Compaction of the peat due to burial drives off  volatile components like water and methane, eventually producing a black- colored organic- rich coal called lignite. Further compaction and heating results in a more carbon- rich coal called bituminous coal. If the rock becomes metamorphosed, a high grade coal called anthracite is produced. However, if temperatures and pressures become extremely high, all of the carbon is converted to graphite. Graphite will burn only at high temperatures and is therefore not useful as an energy source. Anthracite coal produces the most energy when burned, with less energy produced by bituminous coal and lignite.

    Coal is found in beds called seams, usually ranging in thickness from 0.5 to 3m, although some seams reach 30 m.  Two major coal producing periods are known in geologic history. During the Carboniferous and Permian Periods, the continents were apparently located near the equator and covered by shallow seas. This type of environment favored the growth of vegetation and rapid burial to produce coal.

    Known reserves of coal far exceed those of other fossil fuels, and may be our best bet for an energy source of the future. Still, burning of the lower grades of coal, like lignite and bituminous coal produces large amounts of waste products that pollute the atmosphere. This problem needs to be overcome before we can further exploit this source of energy.

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