Oxidative dissolution of hydrothermal mixed-sulphide ore: An assessment of current knowledge in relation to seafloor massive sulphide mining

Emily K Fallon, Sven Petersen, Richard A Brooker, Thomas B Scott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)
313 Downloads (Pure)


The weathering process of seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) deposits can be considered analogous to weathering of terrestrial volcanogenic massive sulphides (VMS) deposits. However, in the context of SMS deposits, the process occurs in chemically buffered waters of near neutral pH, resulting in the formation of insoluble Fe oxy-hydroxide minerals including goethite and hematite as well as sulphates such as jarosite. As a result of this precipitation, it is commonly assumed that any SMS deposit is unlikely to exhibit a significant loss of metals (dissolution and release of heavy metals) into the water column. However, galvanic interactions have never been considered in this seafloor context, whilst they have already been shown to have the ability to increase dissolution significantly in terrestrial deposits. If heavy metal release is not temporally balanced by precipitation of oxide phases, there is the potential that these metal occurrences lose economic value. This is specifically significant if there is an industrial focus on exploiting deposits associated with hydrothermal vents that have been inactive for some time. Not only this, but the geochemistry of weathering products - ’gossans’ - that are formed have the potential to be used as tools for exploration. Furthermore, it is unknown what impact galvanic coupling may have with regards to anthropogenic release of heavy metals during seafloor mining of deposits associated with either active or inactive vents (disturbance of sediment, plume generation and dewatering process). This environmental impact needs to be addressed prior to the formulation of regulations for deep-sea mining by the International Seabed Authority. The present review examines our current understanding of oxidation and dissolution of a mixed sulphide ore, bringing together lines of evidence from a range of literature sources. Based on this review, different seafloor sulphide ore deposits will dissolve by oxidation and release a variety of different metals (economic and/or toxic), all at different rates, with galvanic cells playing a role by increasing dissolution rates. While precipitation of oxide and oxy-hydroxide phases will occur, it is unknown in both a natural weathering and anthropogenic (mining) context whether heavy metal release (including economic and toxic metals) is temporally balanced by this precipitation and any subsequent adsorption. Based on our current understanding, certain sites will be more predisposed to oxidation as a result of their mineralogy (those containing significant pyrrhotite, marcasite, galena and secondary copper sulphides) and/or environment (higher temperatures and oxygen concentrations, lower pH’s). Furthermore, certain sites pose more of an environmental risk (in terms of toxicity) than others, with arc-related SMS deposits associated with higher concentrations of As, Pb, Sb, Cd and Hg and ultra-mafic hosted SMS deposits associated with high concentrations of Co and Ni. The review highlights the need for subsequent studies that investigate the natural weathering process of seafloor sulphide ore deposits, including how this process impacts their economic value and consequent geochemical signature of oxides that are produced over time. Moreover, this review underlines the necessity for experiments to elucidate the oxidative dissolution of ore throughout any mining process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-337
Number of pages31
JournalOre Geology Reviews
Early online date27 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017


  • SMS deposits
  • Oxidation
  • Galvanic Cells
  • Metal release
  • Economic potential
  • Mining impact

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