Everything You Need to Know about VMS Deposits
People are often not aware of where their most prized devices really come from.
Phones, cars, and computers might not seem like the most natural objects. But the metals that make them come from natural processes deep in the earth’s crust – processes that have been going on for 3.4 billion years, and continue to this day.
Today’s visualization comes to us from Foran Mining Corp. and goes in depth to show how one type of mineral deposit, Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide or “VMS”, forms and is the primary source for many of the materials that make the modern world.
What is a VMS Deposit?
Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide (VMS) deposits are one of the richest sources of metals such as copper, lead, and zinc globally. VMS deposits can also produce economic amounts of gold and silver as byproducts of mining these deposits.
Currently, global metal production from VMS deposits account for 22% of zinc, 9.7% of lead, 6% of copper, 8.7% of silver and 2.2% of gold.
Where are VMS deposits found?
VMS deposits occur around the globe and often form in clusters or camps, following the tectonic plate boundaries in areas of ancient underwater volcanic activity.
Natural processes underway today are forming the VMS deposits of tomorrow. This gives scientists an incredible advantage in witnessing how VMS deposits form and gives a special advantage to geologists for what to look for.
Mineralization and Formation
The geological processes that form VMS deposits occur at the depths of the ocean and are associated with volcanic and/or sedimentary rocks.
At sections where the Earth’s crust is thin due to faulting or separation of tectonic plates, the magma heats up the ocean floor.
As the Earth’s crust heats up, the ground softens and allows heated magma to escape towards the ocean or crust contact, the early beginning of a volcano and the deposition of minerals into the ocean floor from magma. Also, the heated ground cracks and begins a process that draws in sea water into the crust which becomes super-heated and imbued with minerals. Black and white smokers expel this seawater back to the surface.
Black and white smokers exhale a mineral rich-plume that spreads out over the ocean floor. As it moves farther and farther away from its heat source, the plume precipitates minerals onto the ocean floor. Over time, the continual activity of the smokers and their mineral rich plumes create mineralized beds that become VMS deposits.
With the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, these mineral rich beds are transposed and can be found on land that was once underwater.
How Big Can VMS Deposits Get?
Current resource and historical production figures from 904 VMS deposits around the world average roughly 17 million tonnes (“Mt”), of which is approximately 1.7% copper, 3.1% zinc, and 0.7% lead.
A few giant mineral deposits (greater than 30 Mt) and several copper-rich and zinc-rich deposits of median tonnage (~2 Mt) skew the averages.
Several large VMS camps are known in Canada, including the Flin Flon, Bathurst and Noranda camps. The high-grade deposits within these camps are often in the range of five to 20 million tonnes of ore and can be much larger.
Meanwhile, approximately 90 VMS deposits have been discovered in the Iberian Pyrite Belt which runs through Portugal and Spain. Several of these are larger than 100 million tonnes, making this region one of the most significant hosts to VMS deposits in the world.
The Critical Minerals to China, EU, and U.S. National Security
Ten materials, including cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths, are deemed critical by all three.
The Critical Minerals to China, EU, and U.S. Security
Governments formulate lists of critical minerals according to their industrial requirements and strategic evaluations of supply risks.
Over the last decade, minerals like nickel, copper, and lithium have been on these lists and deemed essential for clean technologies like EV batteries and solar and wind power.
What are Critical Minerals?
There is no universally accepted definition of critical minerals. Countries and regions maintain lists that mirror current technology requirements and supply and demand dynamics, among other factors.
These lists are also constantly changing. For example, the EU’s first critical minerals list in 2011 featured only 14 raw materials. In contrast, the 2023 version identified 34 raw materials as critical.
One thing countries share, however, is the concern that a lack of minerals could slow down the energy transition.
With most countries committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the total mineral demand from clean energy technologies is expected to double by 2040.
U.S. and EU Seek to Reduce Import Reliance on Critical Minerals
Ten materials feature on critical material lists of both the U.S., the EU, and China, including cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths.
|Mineral / Considered Critical||🇺🇸 U.S.||🇪🇺 EU||🇨🇳 China|
Despite having most of the same materials found in the U.S. or China’s list, the European list is the only one to include phosphate rock. The region has limited phosphate resources (only produced in Finland) and largely depends on imports of the material essential for manufacturing fertilizers.
Coking coal is also only on the EU list. The material is used in the manufacture of pig iron and steel. Production is currently dominated by China (58%), followed by Australia (17%), Russia (7%), and the U.S. (7%).
The U.S. has also sought to reduce its reliance on imports. Today, the country is 100% import-dependent on manganese and graphite and 76% on cobalt.
After decades of sourcing materials from other countries, the U.S. local production of raw materials has become extremely limited. For instance, there is only one operating nickel mine (primary) in the country, the Eagle Mine in Michigan. Likewise, the country only hosts one lithium source in Nevada, the Silver Peak Mine.
Despite being the world’s biggest carbon polluter, China is the largest producer of most of the world’s critical minerals for the green revolution.
China produces 60% of all rare earth elements used as components in high-technology devices, including smartphones and computers. The country also has a 13% share of the lithium production market. In addition, it refines around 35% of the world’s nickel, 58% of lithium, and 70% of cobalt.
Among some of the unique materials on China’s list is gold. Although gold is used on a smaller scale in technology, China has sought gold for economic and geopolitical factors, mainly to diversify its foreign exchange reserves, which rely heavily on the U.S. dollar.
Analysts estimate China has bought a record 400 tonnes of gold in recent years.
China has also slated uranium as a critical mineral. The Chinese government has stated it intends to become self-sufficient in nuclear power plant capacity and fuel production for those plants.
According to the World Nuclear Association, China aims to produce one-third of its uranium domestically.
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