Salty Matters

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Brine evolution and origins of potash: primary or secondary? SOP in Quaternary saline lakes: Part 2 of 2

John Warren - Friday, November 30, 2018

 


Introduction

This, the second in this series of articles on potash brine evolution deals with production of sulphate of potash in plants that exploit saline hydrologies hosted in Quaternary saline sumps. There are two settings where significant volumes of sulphate of potash salts are economically produced at the current time; the Ogden salt pans on the northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah and Lop Nur in China. Although potassium sulphate salts precipitate if modern seawater is evaporated to the bittern stage, as yet there is no operational SOP plant utilising seawater. This is due to concurrent elevated levels of magnesium and chlorine in the bittern, a combination that favours the precipitation of carnallite concurrently with the precipitation of double sulphate salts, such as kainite (Figure 1). Until now, this makes the processing of the multi-mineralogic precipitate for a pure SOP product too expensive when utilising a marine brine feed.

 

Potash in Great Salt Lake, USA (SOP evolution with backreactions)

Today sulphate of potash fertiliser is produced via a combination of solar evaporation and brine processing, using current waters of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, as the brine feed into the Ogden salt pans, which are located at the northeastern end of the Great Salt Lake depression in Utah (Figure 2a). A simpler anthropogenic muriate of potash (MOP) brine evolution occurs in the nearby Wendover salt pans on the Bonneville salt flats. There, MOP precipitates as sylvinite in concentrator pans (after halite). The Bonneville region has a bittern hydrochemistry not unlike like the evolved Na-Cl brines of Salar de Atacama, as documented in the previous article, but it is a brinefield feed without the elevated levels of lithium seen in the Andean playa (Figure 3b).

Great Salt Lake brine contains abundant sulphate with levels sufficiently above calcium that sulphate continues to concentrate after most of the Ca has been used up in the precipitation of both aragonite and gypsum. Thus, as the brines in the anthropogenic pans at Ogden approach the bittern (post halite) stage, a series of sulphate double salts precipitate (Figure 4), along with carnallite and sylvite.


Great Salt Lake brines

The ionic proportions in the primary brine feed that is the endorheic Great Salt Lake water depends on a combination of; 1) the inflow volumes from three major rivers draining the ranges to the east, 2) groundwater inflow, 3) basin evaporation, and 4) precipitation (rainfall/snowfall) directly on the lake (Jones et al., 2009). Major solute inputs can be attributed to calcium bicarbonate-type river waters mixing with sodium chloride-type springs, which are in part hydrothermal and part peripheral recycling agents for NaCl held in the lake sediments. Spencer et al. (1985a) noted that prior to 1930, the lake concentration inversely tracked lake volume, which reflected climatic variation in the drainage. However, since that time, salt precipitation, primarily halite and mirabilite, and dissolution have periodically modified lake brine chemistry and led to density stratification and the formation of brine pockets of different composition.

Complicating these processes is repeated fractional crystallisation and re-solution (backreaction) of lake mineral precipitates. The construction of a railway causeway has restricted circulation, nearly isolating the northern from the southern part of the lake, which receives over 95% of the inflow. Given that Great Salt Lake waters are dominated by Na and Cl, this has led to halite precipitation in the north (Figures 2a, 3a; Gwynn, 2002). Widespread halite precipitation also occurred before 1959, especially in the southern area of the lake, associated with the most severe droughts (Jones et al., 2009; Spencer et al., 1985a). Spencer et al. (1985a) also described the presence of a sublacustrine ridge, which probably separated the lake into two basins at very low lake stands in the Quaternary. Fluctuating conditions emphasise brine differentiation, mixing, and fractional precipitation of salts as significant factors in solute evolution, especially as sinks for CaCO3, Mg, and K in the lake waters and sediments. The evolution of these brine/rock system depends on the concentration gradient and types of suspended and bottom clays, especially in relatively shallow systems.


Brine evolution across the Ogden pans

Figure 3a plots the known hydrochemistry of the inflow waters to the Great Salt Lake and their subsequent concentration. Evolving lake waters are always Na-Cl dominant, with sulphate in excess of magnesium in excess of potassium, throughout. Any post-halite evaporite minerals from this set of chemical proportions will contain post-halite potash bittern salts with elevated proportions of sulphate and magnesium and so will likely produce SOP rather than MOP associations. Contrast these hydrochemical proportions with the inflow and evolution chemistry in the pore brines of the Bonneville salt flat (Figure 3b) the Dead Sea and normal marine waters. Across all examples, sodium and chlorine are dominant and so halite will be the predominant salt deposited after aragonite and gypsum (Figure 4). Specifically, there are changes in sulphate levels with solar concentration (Figure 3b). In brines recovered from feeder wells in the Bonneville saltflat, unlike the nearby bajada well waters, the Bonneville salt flat brines show potassium in excess of sulphate and magnesium. In such a hydrochemical system, sylvite, as well as carnallite, are likely potassium bitterns in post-halite pans. The Wendover brine pans on the Bonneville saltflat produce MOP, not SOP, along with a MgCl2 brine, and have done so for more than 50 years (Bingham, 1980; Warren, 2016).


The mineral series in the Ogden pans

Figure 5 illustrates a laboratory-based construction of the idealised evolution of a Great Salt Lake feed brine as it passes through the various concentration pans. Figure 5 is a portion of the theoretical 25°C sulphate-potassium-magnesium phase diagram for the Great Salt Lake brine system and shows precipitates that are in equilibrium with brine at a particular concentration. Figures 4 and 5 represent typical brine concentration paths at summertime temperatures (Butts, 2002). Importantly, these figures do not describe the entire brine concentration story and local variations; mineralogical complexities in the predicted brine stream are related to thermal stratification, retention times and pond leakage. Effects on the chemistry of the brine due to the specific day-by-day and season-by-season variations of concentration and temperature, which arise in any solar ponding operation, require onsite monitoring and rectification. Such ongoing monitoring is of fundamental import when a pilot plant is constructed to test the reality of a future brine plant and its likely products.

 

Figure 6 illustrates the idealised phase evolution of pan brines at Ogden in terms of a K2SO4 phase diagram (no NaCl or KCl co-precipitates are shown; Felton et al., 2010). Great Salt Lake brine is pumped into the first set of solar ponds where evaporation initially proceeds along the line shown as Evap 1 until halite reaches saturation and is precipitated. Liquors discharged from the halite ponds are transferred to the potash precipitation ponds where solar evaporation continues as line Evap 2 on the phase diagram and potassium begins to reach saturation after about 75% of the water is removed. Potassium, sodium levels rise with further evaporation and schoenite precipitates in the schoenite crystalliser. After some schoenite precipitation occurs, the liquor continues to evaporate along the Evap 3 line to the point that schoenite, sylvite, and additional halite precipitate. Evaporation continues as shown by line Evap 3 to the point that kainite, sylvite and halite become saturated and precipitate. From this plot, the importance of the relative levels of extraction/precipitation of sulphate double salts versus chloride double salts is evident, as the evaporation plot point moves right with increasing chloride concentrations. That is, plot point follows the arrows from left to right as concentration of chloride (dominant ion in all pans) increases and moves the plot position right.


Production of SOP in the Great Salt Lake

To recover sulphate of potash commercially from pan bitterns fed from the waters of Great Salt Lake, the double salts kainite and schoenite are first precipitated and recovered in post-halite solar ponds (Figures 6, 7). The first salt to saturate and crystallise in the concentrator pans is halite. This is successively followed by epsomite, schoenite, kainite, carnallite, and finally bischofite. To produce a desirable SOP product requires ongoing in-pan monitoring and an on-site industrial plant whereby kainite is converted to schoenite. The complete salt evolution and processing plant outcome in the Ogden facility is multiproduct and can produce halite, salt cake and sulphate of potash and a MgCl2 brine product. Historically, sodium sulphate was recovered from the Great Salt Lake brines as a byproduct of the halite and potash production process, but ongoing low prices mean Na2SO4 has not been economically harvested for the last decade or so.

The complete production and processing procedure is as follows (Figure 7; Butts, 2002, 2007; Felton et al., 2010): 1) Brine is pumped from the Great Salt Lake into solar evaporation ponds where sodium chloride precipitates in the summer. 2) When winter weather cools the residual (post-halite) brine in the pans to -1 to -4°C, sodium sulphate crystals precipitate as mirabilite in a relatively pure state. Mirabilite crystals can be picked up by large earth-moving machinery and stored outdoors each winter until further processing takes place. 3) The harvested mirabilite can be added to hot water, and anhydrous sodium sulphate precipitated by the addition of sodium chloride to the heated mix to reduce sodium sulphate solubility through the common ion effect. The final salt cake product is 99.5% pure Na2SO4. 4) To produce SOP, Great Salt Lake brines are allowed to evaporate in a set of halite ponds, until approaching saturation with potassium salts. The residual brine is then transferred to a mixing pond, where it mixes with a second brine (from higher up the evaporation series, that contains a higher molar ratio of magnesium to potassium. 5) This adjusted brine is then allowed to evaporate to precipitate sodium chloride once more, until it is again saturated with respect to potassium salts. 6) The saturated brine is then transferred to another pond, is further evaporated and precipitates kainite (Figures 5, 6). Kainite precipitation continues until carnallite begins to form, at which time the brine is moved to another pond and is allowed to evaporate further to precipitate carnallite. 6) Some of the kainite-depleted brine is recycled to the downstream mixing pond to maintain the required molar ratio of magnesium to calcium in this earlier mixing pond (step 4). 7) Once carnallite has precipitated, the residual brine is transferred to deep storage and subjected to winter cooling to precipitate additional carnallite as it is a prograde salt. 8) Cryogenically precipitated carnallite can be processed to precipitate additional kainite by mixing it with a kainite-saturated brine. 9) MgCl2-rich end-brines in the post-carnallite bittern pans are then further processed to produce either MgCl2 flakes or a 32% MgCl2 brine. These end-bitterns are then used as a feedstock to make magnesium metal, bischofite flakes, dust suppressants, freeze preventers, fertiliser sprays, and used to refresh flush in ion exchange resins.

Some complexities in the observed mineral precipitation series in the Ogden Pans

Under natural solar pond conditions in the Ogden Pans, the brine temperature fluctuates with the air temperature across day-night and seasonal temperature cycles, and there is a lag time for temperature response in waters any brine pan, especially if the pan is heliothermic. Atmosphere-driven fluctuations in temperature results in changes in ion saturations, which can drive selective precipitation or dissolution of salts in the brine body. Air temperature in the Ogden pans may be 35°C during the day and 15°C at night. Brine at point A in figure 5 may favour the formation of kainite during the daytime and schoenite at night. The result of the diurnal temperature oscillation is a mixture of both salts in a single pond from the same brine. In terms of extracted product, this complicates ore processing as a single pan will contain both minerals, produced at the same curing stage, at the same time, yet one double salt entrains KCl, the other K2SO4, so additional processing is necessary to purify the product stream (Butts, 2002).

The sulphate ion in the pan waters is particularity temperature sensitive, and salts containing it in GSL pans tend to precipitate at cooler temperatures. Surficial cooling during the summer nights can cause prograde salts to precipitate, but the next day's heat generally provides sufficient activation energy to cause total dissolution of those salts precipitated just a few hours before (Butts, 2002). It is not unusual to find a 0.5 cm layer of hexahydrite (MgSO4.6H2O) at the bottom of a solar pond in the morning, but redissolved by late afternoon.

Under controlled laboratory conditions, brine collected from the hypersaline north arm of the Great Salt Lake will not crystallise mirabilite  until the brine temperature reaches 2°C or lower. Yet, in the anthropogenic solar ponds, mirabilite has been observed to crystallise at brine temperatures above 7°C. During the winter, as the surface temperature of the GSL pan brine at night becomes very cold (2°C or lower), especially on clear nights, and mirabilite rafts will form on and just below the brine surface and subsequently sink into the somewhat warmer brine at the floor of the pond. Because there is insufficient activation energy in this brine to completely redissolve the mirabilite, it remains on the pan floor, until warmer day/night temperatures are attained. However, it is also possible for salts precipitated by cooling to be later covered by salts precipitated by evaporation, which effectively prevents dissolution of those more temperature-sensitive salts that would otherwise redissolve (Butts, 2002).

There are also longer terms seasonal influences on mineralogy. Some salts deposited in June, July, and August (summer) will convert to other salts, with a possible total change in chemistry, when they are exposed to colder winter temperatures and rainfall. Kainite, for example, may convert to sylvite and epsomite and become a hardened mass on the pond floor; or if it is in contact with a sulphate-rich brine, it can convert to schoenite. Conversely, mirabilite will precipitate in the winter but redissolve during the hot summer months.

The depth of a solar pond also controls the size of the crystals produced. For example, if halite (NaCl) is precipitated in a GSL pond that is either less than 8 cm or more than 30cm deep, it will have a smaller crystal size than when precipitated in a pond between 8 and 30 cm deep. Smaller crystals of halite are undesirable in a de-icing product since a premium price is paid for larger crystals.

In terms of residence time, some salts require more time than others to crystallise in a pan. Brine that is not given sufficient time for crystallisation before it is moved into another pond, which contains brine at a different concentration, will produce a different suite of salts. For example, if a brine supersaturated in ions that will produce kainite, epsomite, and halite (reaction I), is transferred to another pond, the resulting brine mixture can favour carnallite (reaction 2), while kainite salts are eliminated.

Reaction 1: 9.75H2O + Na+ + 2Cl- + 2Mg2+ + K+ + 2SO42+ —> MgSO4.KCl +2.75H2O + MgSO4.7H2O + NaCl

Reaction 2: 12H2O + Na+ + 4Cl- + 2Mg2+ + K+ + 2SO42+ —> MgCl2.6H2O +MgSO4.6H2O + NaCl

Reaction 1 retains more magnesium as MgCl2 in the brine; reaction 2 retains more sulphate. In reaction 2, it is also interesting to note the effect of waters-of-hydration on crystallization; forcing out salts with high waters of crystallization results in higher rates of crystallization. The hydrated salts remove waters from the brine and further concentrate the brine in much the same way as does evaporation.

Pond leakage and brine capture (entrainment) in and below the pan floor are additional influences on mineralogy, regardless of brine depth or ponding area. As mentioned earlier, to precipitate bischofite and allow for MgCl2 manufacture, around ninety-eight percent of the water from present North Arm brine feed must evaporate. If pond leakage causes the level of the ponding area to drop too quickly, it becomes near impossible to reach saturation for bischofite (due to brine reflux). Control of pond leakage in the planning and construction phases is essential to assure that the precipitated salts contain the optimal quantity of the desired minerals for successful pond operation.

The opposite of leakage is brine retention in a precipitated layer; it can also alter brine chemistry and recovery economics. Brine entrained (or trapped) in the voids between salt crystals in the pond floor is effectively removed from salt production and so affects the chemistry of salts that will be precipitated as concentration proceeds and can also drive unwanted backreactions. The time required to evaporate nearly ninety percent of the water from the present north arm Great Salt Lake brine in the Ogden solar pond complex, under natural steady state conditions, is approximately eighteen months.

Summary of SOP production procedures in Great Salt Lake

Sulphate of potash cannot be obtained from the waters of the Great Salt Lake by simple solar evaporation (Behrens, 2002). As the lake water is evaporated, first halite precipitates in a relatively pure form and is harvested. By the time evaporative concentration has proceeded to the point that saturation in a potash-entraining salt occurs, most of the NaCl has precipitated. It does, however, continue to precipitate and becomes the primary contaminant in the potassium-bearing salt beds in the higher-end pans.

Brine phase chemistry from the point of potassium saturation in the evaporation series is complicated, and an array of potassium double salts are possible, depending on brine concentration, temperature and other factors. Among the variety of potash minerals precipitated in the potash harvester pans, the majority are double salts that contain atoms of both potassium and magnesium in the same molecule, They are dominated by kainite, schoenite, and carnallite. All are highly hydrated; that is, they contain high levels of water of crystallisation that must be removed during processing. SOP purification also involves removal of the considerable quantities of sodium chloride that are co-precipitated, after this the salts must be chemically converted into potassium sulphate.

Controlling the exact mineralogy of the precipitated salts and their composition mixtures is not possible in the pans, which are subject to the vagaries of climate and associated temperature variations. Many of the complex double salts precipitating in the pans are stable only under fixed physiochemical conditions, so that transitions of composition may take place in the ponds and even in the stockpile and early processing plant steps.

While weathering, draining, temperature and other factors can be controlled to a degree, it is essential that the Great Salt Lake plant be able to handle and effectively accommodate a widely variable feed mix (Behrens 2002). To do this, the plant operator has developed a basic process comprising a counter-current leach procedure for converting the potassium-bearing minerals through known mineral transition stages to a final potassium sulfate product (Figure 7). This set of processing steps is sensitive to sodium chloride content, so a supplemental flotation circuit is used to handle those harvested salts high in halite. It aims to remove the halite (in solution) and upgrade the feed stream to the point where it can be handled by the basic plant process.

Solids harvested from the potash ponds with elevated halite levels are treated with anionic flotation to remove remaining halite (Felton et al., 2010). To convert kainite into schoenite, it is necessary to mix the upgraded flotation product with a prepared brine. The conversion of schoenite to SOP at the Great Salt Lake plant requires that new MOP is added, over the amount produced from the lake brines. This additional MOP is purchased from the open market. The schoenite solids are mixed with potash in a draft tube baffle reactor to produce SOP and byproduct magnesium chloride.

The potassium sulfate processing stream defining the basic treatment process in the Great Salt Lake plant is summarised as Figure 7, whereby once obtaining the appropriate chemistry the SOP product is ultimately filtered, dried, sized and stored. Final SOP output may then be compacted, graded, and provided with additives as desired, then distributed in bulk or bagged, by rail or truck.


Lop Nur, Tarim Basin, China (SOP operation)

Sulphate of potash (SOP) via brine processing (solution mining) of lake sediments and subsequent solar concentration of brines is currently underway in the fault-bound Luobei Hollow region of the Lop Nur playa, in the southeastern part of Xinjiang Province, Western China (Liu et al., 2006; Sun et al., 2018). The recoverable sulphate of potash resource is estimated to be 36 million tonnes from lake brine (Dong et al., 2012). Lop Nur lies in the eastern part of the Taklimakan Desert (Figure 8a), China’s largest and driest desert, and is in the drainage sump of the basin, some 780 meters above sea level in a BSk climate belt. The Lop Nur depression first formed in the early Quaternary, due to the extensional collapse of the eastern Tarim Platform and is surrounded and typically in fault contact with the Kuruktagh (to the north), Bei Shan (to east) and Altun (to the south) mountains (Figure 8b).

The resulting Lop Nur (Lop Nor) sump is a large groundwater discharge playa that is the terminal point of China’s largest endorheic drainage system, the Tarim Basin, which occupies an area of more than 530,000 km2 (Ma et al., 2010). The Lop Nur sump is the hydrographic base level to local and regional groundwater and surface water flow systems, and thus collectively captures all river and subsurface flow originating in the surrounding mountainous regions. The area has been subject to ongoing Quaternary climate and water supply oscillations, which over the last few hundred years has driven concentric strandzone contractions on the playa surface, to form what is sometimes called the “Great Ear Lake" of the Lop Nur sump (Liu et al., 2016a).

Longer term widespread climate oscillations (thousands of years) drove precipitation of saline glauberite-polyhalite deposits, alternating with more humid lacustrine mudstones especially in fault defined grabens with the sump. For example, Liu et al. (2016b) conducted high-resolution multi-proxy analyses using materials from a well-dated pit section (YKD0301) in the centre of Lop Nur and south of the Luobei depression. They showed that Lop Nur experienced a progression through a brackish lake, saline lake, slightly brackish lake, saline lake, brackish lake, and playa in response to climatic changes over the past 9,000 years.

Presently, the Lop Nur playa lacks perennial long-term surface inflow and so is characterised by desiccated saline mudflats and polygonal salt crusts. The upward capillary flux from the shallow groundwater helps to maintain a high rate of evaporation in the depression and drives the formation of a metre-thick ephemeral halite crust that covers much of the depression (Liu et al., 2016a).

Historically, before construction of extensive irrigation systems in the upstream portion of the various riverine feeds to the depression and the diversion of water into the Tarim-Kongqi-Qargan canal, brackish floodwaters periodically accumulated in the Lop Nur depression. After the diversion of inflows, terminal desiccation led to the formation of the concentric shrinkage shorelines, that today outline the “Great Ear Lake” region of the Tarim Basin (Figure 8b; Huntington, 1907; Chao et al., 2009; Liu et al., 2016a).

The current climate is cool and extremely arid (Koeppen BSk); average annual rainfall is less than 20 mm and the average potential evaporation rates ≈3500 mm/yr (Ma et al., 2008, 2010). The mean annual air temperature is 11.6°C; higher temperatures occur during July (>40°C), and the lower temperatures occur during January (<20°C). Primary wind direction is northeast. The Lop Nor Basin experiences severe and frequent sandstorms; the region is well known for its wind-eroded features, including many layered yardangs along the northern, western and eastern margins of the Lop Nur salt plain (Lin et al., 2018).


Salinity and chemical composition of modern groundwater brine varies little in the ‘‘Great Ear” area and appears not to have changed significantly over the last decade (Ma et al., 2010). Dominant river inflows to the Lop Nor Basin are Na-Mg-Ca-SO4-Cl-HCO3 waters (Figure 9). In contrast, the sump region is characterised by highly concentrated groundwater brines (≈350 mg/l) that are rich in Na and Cl, poor in Ca and HCO3+CO3, and contain considerable amounts of Mg, SO4 and K, with pH ranging from 6.6 to 7.2 (Figure 9). When concentrated, the Luobei/Lop Nur pore brines is saturated with respect to halite, glauberite, thenardite, polyhalite and bloedite (Ma et al., 2010; Sun et al., 2018).

Groundwater brines, pooled in the northern sub-depression, mostly in the Luobei depression, are pumped into a series of pans to the immediate south, where sulphate of potash is produced via a set of solar concentrator pans. Brines in the Luobei depression and adjacent Xingqing and Tenglong platforms are similar in chemistry and salinity to the Great Ear Lake area but with a concentrated saline reserve due to the presence of a series of buried glauberite-rich beds (Figure 9; Hu and Wang, 2001; Ma et al., 2010; Sun et al., 2018).

K-rich mother brines in the Luobei hollow also contain significant MgSO4 levels and fill open phreatic pores in a widespread subsurface glauberite bed, with a potassium content of 1.4% (Liu et al., 2008; Sun et al., 2018). Feed brines are pumped from these evaporitic sediment hosts in the Luobei sump into a large field of concentrator pans to ultimately produce sulphate of potash (Figure 8a).

Brine chemical models, using current inflow water and groundwater brine chemistries and assuming open-system hydrology, show good agreement between theoretically predicted and observed minerals in upper parts of the Lop Nor Basin succession (Ma et al., 2010). However, such shallow sediment modelling does not explain the massive amounts of glauberite (Na2SO4.CaSO4) and polyhalite (K2SO4MgSO4.2CaSO4.2H2O) recovered in a 230 m deep core (ZK1200B well) from the Lop Nor Basin (Figure 9a).


Hydrochemical simulations assuming a closed system at depth and allowing brine reactions with previously formed minerals imply that widespread glauberite in the basin formed via back reactions between brine, gypsum and anhydrite and that polyhalite formed via a diagenetic reaction between brine and glauberite. Diagenetic textures related to recrystallisation and secondary replacement are seen in the ZK1200B core; they include gypsum-cored glauberite crystals and gypsum replacing glauberite. Such textures indicate significant mineral-brine interaction and backreaction during crystallisation of glauberite and polyhalite (Liu et al., 2008). Much of the glauberite dissolves to create characteristic mouldic porosity throughout the glauberite reservoir intervals (Figure 10, 11b)


Mineral assemblages predicted from the evaporation of Tarim river water match closely with natural assemblages and abundances and, in combination with a model that allows widespread backreactions, can explain the extensive glauberite deposits in the Lop Nor basin (Ma et al., 2008, 2010). It seems that the Tarim river inflows, not fault-controlled upwelling hydrothermal brines, were the dominant ion source throughout the lake history. The layered distribution of minerals in the more deeply cored sediments documents the evolving history of inflow water response to wet and dry periods in the Lop Nor basin. The occurrence of abundant glauberite and gypsum below 40 m depth, and the absence of halite, polyhalite and bloedite in the same sediment suggests that the brine underwent incomplete concentration in the wetter periods 10b).

In contrast, the increasing abundance of halite, polyhalite and bloedite in the top 40 m of core from the ZK1200B well indicate relatively dry periods (Figure 10a), where halite precipitated at lower evaporative concentrations (log Concentration factor = 3.15), while polyhalite and bloedite precipitated at higher evaporative concentrations (log = 3.31 and 3.48 respectively). Following deposition of the more saline minerals, the lake system once again became more humid in the later Holocene, until the anthropogenically-induced changes in the hydrology over the last few decades, driven by upstream water damming and extraction for agriculture (Ma et al., 2008). These changes have returned the sump hydrology to the more saline character that it had earlier in the Pleistocene.

The Lop Nur potash recovery plant/factory and pan system, located adjacent to the LuoBei depression (Figures 8, 11a), utilises a brine-well source aquifer where the potash brine is reservoired in intercrystalline and vuggy porosity in a thick stacked series of porous glauberite beds/aquifers.

Currently, 200 boreholes have been drilled in the Lop Nor brine field area showing the Late-Middle Pleistocene to Late Pleistocene strata are distributed as massive, continuous, thick layers of glauberite with well-developed intercrystal and mouldic porosity, forming storage space for potassium-rich brine (Figure 11b; Sun et al., 2018). However, buried faults and different rates of creation of fault-bound accommodation space, means there are differences in the brine storage capacity among the three brinefield extraction areas; termed the Luobei depression, the Xingqing platform and the Tenglong platform areas (Figures 9a, 11a).

In total, there are seven glauberitic brine beds defined by drill holes in the Luobei depression, including a phreatic aquifer, W1L, and six artesian aquifers, W2L, W3L, W4L, W5L, W6L, and W7 (Figure 10b; Sun et al., 2018). At present, only W1L, W2L, W3L, and W4L glauberite seams are used as brine sources. There are two artesian brine aquifers, W2X and W3X, exposed by drill holes in the Xinqing platform and there are three beds in the Tenglong extraction area, including a phreatic aquifer, W1T, and two artesian aquifers, W2T and W3T (Figure 10b).

W1L is a phreatic aquifer with layered distribution across the whole Luobei depression, with an average thickness of 17.54 m, water table depths of 1.7 to 2.3 m, porosities of 6.98% to 38.45%, and specific yields of 4.57% to 25.89%. Water yield is the highest in the central and northeast of the depression, with unit brine overflows of more than 5000 cubic meters per day per meter of water table depth (m3/dm). In the rest of the aquifer, the unit brine overflows range from 1000 to 5000 m3/dm (Sun et al., 2018). The W2L artesian aquifer is confined, nearly horizontal with a stratified distribution, and has an average thickness of 10.18 m, unit brine overflows of 10 to 100 m3/dm, water table depths of 20 to 40 m, porosities of 4.34% to 37.8%, and specific yields of 1.08% to 21.04%. The W3L artesian aquifer is confined, with stratified distribution and an average thickness of 8.50 m, unit brine overflows of 10 to 100 m3/dm, water table depths of 40 to 70 m, porosities of 2.85% to 19.97%, and specific yields of 1.10% to 13.37%. The W3L aquifer is also confined with stratified distribution, with an average thickness of 7.28 m, unit brine overflows of 10 to 100 m3/dm, water table depths of 70 to 100 m, porosities of 5.22% to 24.72%, and specific yields of 1.03% to 9.91%. The lithologies of the four brine storage layers are dominated by glauberite, and occasional lacustrine sedimentary clastic rocks, such as gypsum (Figure 10a).

The Xinqing platform consists of two confined potassium-bearing brine aquifers (Figure 10b). Confined brines have layered or stratified distributions. The average thicknesses of the aquifers are 4.38 to 7.52 m. Due to the F1 fault, there is no phreatic aquifer in the Xinqing platform, but this does not affect the continuity of the brine storage layer between the extraction areas. The W2X aquifer is confined, stratified, and distributed in the eastern part of this ore district with a north-south length of 77.78 km, east-west width of 16.82 km, and total area of 1100 km2. Unit brine overflows are 2.25 to 541.51 m3/dm, water table depths are 10 to 20 m, porosities are 3.89% to 40.69%, and specific yields are 2.01% to 21.15%. The W3X aquifer is also confined and stratified, with a north-south length of 76.10 km, east-west width of 18.81 km, and total area of 1444 km2. Unit brine overflows are 1.67 to 293.99 m3/d m, water table depths are 11.3 to 38 m, porosities are 4.16% to 26.43%, and specific yields are 2.11% to 14.19%23.

The Tenglong platform consists of a phreatic aquifer and two confined aquifers. W1T is a phreatic, stratified aquifer and is the main ore body, and is bound by the F3 fault (Figure 10b). It is distributed across the northern part of the Tenglong extraction area, with a north-south length of about 33 km, east-west width of about 20 km, and total area of 610 km2. Water table depths are 3.26 to 4.6 m, porosities are 2.03% to 38.81%, and specific yields are 22.48% to 1.22%. On the other side of the F3 fault, in the southern part of the mining area, is the W2T confined aquifer (Figure 10b). Water table depths are 16.91 to 22 m, porosities are 3.58% to 37.64%, and specific yields are 1.35% to 18.69%. W3T is also a confined aquifer, with a stratified orebody distributed in the southern part of the mining area, with a north-south length of about 29 km, east-west width of about 21 km, and total area of 546 km2. Water table depths are 17.13 to 47 m, porosities are 2.69% to 38.71%, and specific yields are 1.26% to 17.64%.

Lop Nur is an unusual potash source

The glauberite-hosted brinefield in the Luobei depression and the adjacent platforms makes the Lop Nur SOP system unique in that it is the world's first large-scale example of brine commercialisation for potash recovery in a Quaternary continental playa aquifer system with a non-MOP brinefield target. Elsewhere, such as in the Dead Sea and the Qarhan sump, Salar de Atacama and the Bonneville salt flats, the brines derived from Quaternary lacustrine beds and water bodies are concentrated via solar evaporation in semi-arid desert scenarios. Potash plants utilising these Quaternary evaporite-hosted lacustrine brine systems do not target potassium sulphate, but process either carnallitite or sylvinite into a commercial MOP product

 Glauberite is found in a range of other continental Quaternary evaporite deposits around the world but, as yet,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       outside of Lop Nur is not economically exploited to produce sulphate of potash. For example, glauberite is a significant component in Quaternary cryogenic beds in Karabogazgol on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, in Quaternary evaporite beds in Laguna del Rey in Mexico, in saline lacustrine beds in the Miocene of Spain and Turkey, and in pedogenic beds in hyperarid nitrate-rich soils of the Atacama Desert of South America (Warren, 2016; Chapter 12).

In most cases, the deposits are commercially exploited as a source of sodium sulphate (salt cake). In a saline Quaternary lake in Canada, SOP is produced by processing saline lake waters. This takes place in Quill Lake, where small volumes of SOP are produced via mixing a sylvite feed (trucked into the site) with a cryogenic NaSO4 lake brine.

The Lop Nur deposit is mined by the SDIC Xinjiang Luobupo Hoevellite Co. Ltd, and the main product is potassium sulfate, with a current annual production capacity of 1.3 million tons. Pan construction began in 2000, and the plant moved in full -cale operation in 2004 when it produced ≈50,000 tons. The parent company, State Development and Investment Corporation (SDIC), is China’s largest state-owned investment holding company. The company estimates a potash reserve ≈ 12.2 billion tons in the sump. This makes Lop Nur deposit the largest SOP facility in the world, and it is now a significant supplier of high premium fertiliser to the Chinese domestic market.

Implications

A study of a few of the Quaternary pans worldwide manufacturing economic levels of potash via solar evaporation shows tha,t independent of whether SOP or MOP salts are the main product, all retain abundant evidence that salt precipitates continue to evolve as the temperature and the encasing brine chemistry change. As we shall see in many ancient examples discussed in the next article, ongoing postdepositional mineralogical alteration dominates the textural and mineralogical story in most ancient potash deposits.

As we saw in the previous article, which focused on MOP in solar concentrator plants with brine feeds from Quaternary saline lakes, SOP production from brine feeds in Quaternary saline lakes is also related strongly to cooler desert climates (Figure 12). The Koeppen climate at Lop Nur is cool arid desert (BWk), while the Great Salt Lake straddles cool arid steppe desert and a temperate climate zone, with hot dry summer zones (BSk and Csa)


Outside of these two examples, there are a number of other Quaternary potash mineral occurrences with the potential for SOP production, if a suitable brine processing stream can be devised (Warren, 2010, 2016). These sites include intermontane depressions in the high Andes in what is a high altitude polar tundra setting (Koeppen ET), none of which are commercial (Figure 12b).

Similarly, there a number of non-commercial potash (SOP) mineral and brine occurrences in various hot arid desert regions in Australia, northern Africa and the Middle East (Koeppen BWh). Today, SOP in Salar de Atacama is currently produced as a byproduct of lithium carbonate production, along with MOP, as discussed in the previous article in this series.

As for MOP, climatically, commercial potash brine SOP systems are hosted in Quaternary-age lacustrine sediments are located in cooler endorheic intermontane depressions (BWk, BSk). The association with somewhat cooler desert and less arid cool steppe climates underlines the need for greater volumes of brine to reside in the landscape in order to facilitate the production of significant volumes of potash bittern.

Put simply, in the case of both MOP and SOP production in Quaternary settings, hot arid continental deserts simply do not have enough flowable water to produce economic volumes of a chemically-suitable mother brine. That is, currently economic Quaternary MOP and SOP operations produce by pumping nonmarine pore or saline lake brines into a set of concentrator pans. Mother waters reside in hypersaline perennial lakes in steep-sided valleys or in pores in salt-entraining aquifers with dissolving salt compositions supplying  a suitable ionic proportions in the mother brine. In terms of annual volume of product sold into the world market, Quaternary brine systems supply less than 15% The remainder comes from the mining of a variety of ancient solid-state potash sources. In the third and final article in this series, we shall discuss how and why the chemistry and hydrogeology of these ancient potash sources is mostly marine-fed and somewhat different from the continental hydrologies addressed so far.

References

Behrens, P., 2002, Industrial processing of Great Salt lake Brines by Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemical Corporation, in D. T. Gywnne, ed., Great Salt Lake: A scientific, historical and economic overview, Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, Bulletin 116, p. 223-228.

Bingham, C. P., 1980, Solar production of potash from brines of the Bonneville Salt Flats, in J. W. Gwynn, ed., Great Salt Lake; a scientific, history and economic overview. , v. 116, Bulletin Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, p. 229-242.

Butts, D., 2002, Chemistry of Great Salt Lake Brines in Solar Ponds, in D. T. Gywnne, ed., Great Salt Lake: A scientific, historical and economic overview, Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, Bulletin 116, p. 170-174.

Butts, D., 2007, Chemicals from Brines, Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 784-803.

Chao, L., P. Zicheng, Y. Dong, L. Weiguo, Z. Zhaofeng, H. Jianfeng, and C. Chenlin, 2009, A lacustrine record from Lop Nur, Xinjiang, China: Implications for paleoclimate change during Late Pleistocene: Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, v. 34, p. 38-45.

Dong, Z., P. Lv, G. Qian, X. Xia, Y. Zhao, and G. Mu, 2012, Research progress in China's Lop Nur: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 111, p. 142-153.

Felton, D., J. Waters, R. Moritz, D., and T. A. Lane, 2010, Producing Sulfate of Potash from Polyhalite with Cost Estimates, Gustavson Associates, p. 19.

Hu, G., and N.-a. Wang, 2001, The sand wedge and mirabilite of the last ice age and their paleoclimatic significance in Hexi Corridor: Chinese Geographical Science, v. 11, p. 80-86.

Huntington, E., 1907, Lop-Nor. A Chinese Lake. Part 1. The Unexplored Salt Desert of Lop: Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, v. 39, p. 65-77.

Jones, B., D. Naftz, R. Spencer, and C. Oviatt, 2009, Geochemical Evolution of Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA: Aquatic Geochemistry, v. 15, p. 95-121.

Lin, Y., L. Xu, and G. Mu, 2018, Differential erosion and the formation of layered yardangs in the Loulan region (Lop Nur), eastern Tarim Basin: Aeolian Research, v. 30, p. 41-47.

Liu, C., W. Mili, J. Pengcheng, L. I. Shude, and C. Yongzhi, 2006, Features and Formation Mechanism of Faults and Potash-forming Effect in the Lop Nur Salt Lake, Xinjiang, China: Acta Geologica Sinica - English Edition, v. 80, p. 936-943.

Liu, C.-A., H. Gong, Y. Shao, Z. Yang, L. Liu, and Y. Geng, 2016a, Recognition of salt crust types by means of PolSAR to reflect the fluctuation processes of an ancient lake in Lop Nur: Remote Sensing of Environment, v. 175, p. 148-157.

Liu, C. L., M. L. Wang, P. C. Jiao, W. D. Fan, Y. Z. Chen, Z. C. Yang, and J. G. Wang, 2008, Sedimentary characteristics and origin of polyhalite in Lop Nur Salt Lake,Xinjiang: Mineral Deposits.

Liu, C. L., J. F. Zhang, P. C. Jiao, and S. Mischke, 2016b, The Holocene history of Lop Nur and its palaeoclimate implications: Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 148, p. 163-175.

Ma, C., F. Wang, Q. Cao, X. Xia, S. Li, and X. Li, 2008, Climate and environment reconstruction during the Medieval Warm Period in Lop Nur of Xinjiang, China: Chinese Science Bulletin, v. 53, p. 3016-3027.

Ma, L., T. K. Lowenstein, B. Li, P. Jiang, C. Liu, J. Zhong, J. Sheng, H. Qiu, and H. Wu, 2010, Hydrochemical characteristics and brine evolution paths of Lop Nor Basin, Xinjiang Province, Western China: Applied Geochemistry, v. 25, p. 1770-1782.

Spencer, R. J., H. P. Eugster, and B. F. Jones, 1985b, Geochemistry of Great Salt Lake, Utah II: Pleistocene-Holocene evolution: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 49, p. 739-747.

Spencer, R. J., H. P. Eugster, B. F. Jones, and S. L. Rettig, 1985a, Geochemistry of Great Salt Lake, Utah I: Hydrochemistry since 1850: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 49, p. 727-737.

Sun, M.-g., and L.-c. Ma, 2018, Potassium-rich brine deposit in Lop Nor basin, Xinjiang, China: Scientific Reports, v. 8, p. 7676.

Warren, J. K., 2010, Evaporites through time: Tectonic, climatic and eustatic controls in marine and nonmarine deposits: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 98, p. 217-268.

Warren, J. K., 2016, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3): Berlin, Springer, 1854 p.

 

Brine evolution and origins of potash ore salts: Primary or secondary? Part 1 of 3

John Warren - Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Introduction

There is a dichotomy in mineralogical associations and precipitation series in both modern and ancient potash ore deposits. Interpretations of ancient potash ore mineralogies across time are generally tied to the evolution of the hydrochemical proportions in modern and ancient oceans. We have already discussed this in previous Salty Matters articles and will not repeat the details here (see August 10, 2015; July 31, 2018).

At times in the past, such as in the Devonian and the Cretaceous, the world ocean was depleted in Mg and SO4 relative to the present-day ocean (Figure 1a). In the relevant literature, this has led to the application of the term MgSO4-depleted versus MgSO4-enriched oceans. In terms of brine evolution, this is related to the gypsum divide, with the term MgSO4-enriched used to describe the ocean chemistry of today and other times in the past, such as in the Permian, when MgSO4 bittern salts typify co-precipitates with sylvite/carnallite (Figure 1b).


The validity of the ocean chemistry argument is primarily based on determinations of inclusion chemistries as measured in chevron halites (Figure 1a; Lowenstein et al., 2014). Inclusions in growth-aligned primary halite chevrons are assumed to preserve the chemical proportions in the ambient oceanic brine precipitating the halite. That is, the working assumption is that pristine aligned-halite chevrons have not been subject to significant diagenetic alteration once the salt was deposited and permeability was lost due to ongoing halite cementation in the shallow (eogenetic) subsurface realm.

The same assumption as to the pristine nature of chevron halite is applied to outcomes of biological experiments where Permian archaeal/halobacterial life has been re-animated using ancient salt samples (Vreeland et al., 2000).

Primary potash ore?

But does the same assumption of pristine texturing across time also apply to the halite layers associated with the world’s potash ores? In my experience of subsurface potash ores and their textures, I have rarely seen primary-chevron halite interlayered with potash ore layers of either sylvite or carnallite. An obvious exception is the pristine interlayering of chevron halite and sylvite in the now-depleted Eocene potash ores of the Mulhouse Basin, France (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). There, the sylvite layers intercalate at the cm-scale with chevron halite, and the alternating layering is thought to be related to precipitation driven by temperature fluctuations in a series of shallow density-stratified meromictic brine lakes (documented in the third Salty Matters article).

More typically, ancient potash ore textures are diagenetic and indicate responses to varying degrees of dissolution, brine infiltration and alteration. The simpler styles of brine infiltration consist of a background matrix dominated by cm-dm scale chevron halite layers that have been subject to dissolution and karstification during shallow burial. Resultant cm-dm scale voids typically retain a mm-thick selvedge of CaSO4 lathes and needles, followed by fill of the remaining void by varying amounts of sparry halite, carnallite and sylvite. This type of texture dominates Quaternary stratoid potash layers in the southern Qaidam Basin in China and Cretaceous carnallite-rich layers in the Maha Sarakham Fm in NE Thailand and southern China (Warren, 2016). Then there are the even more altered and recrystallised, but still bedded, textures in the potash ore zones of Devonian Prairie Evaporite of western Canada (Wardlaw, 1968) and potash layers in the Permian Basin in west Texas and New Mexico (Lowenstein, 1988; Holt and Powers, 2011). Beyond this level of diagenetic texturing are the flow-orientated and foliated structural textures of the Permian potash ores in potash mines in the diapiric Zechstein evaporites of Germany and Poland, the Kungurian diapirs of the Cis-Urals of Russia and the Devonian diapirs of the Pripyat Basin.

And so, herein lies the main point of discussion for this and the next two Salty Matters articles, namely, what, where and when is(are) the mechanism(s) or association(s) of hydrochemical mechanisms that sufficiently concentrate or alter a brine’s chemistry to where it precipitates economic levels of a variety of potash salts, as either muriate of potash or sulphate of potash. Notably, there are no Quaternary-age solid-state ore systems that are mined for potash.

In this article, we look at the main modern brine systems where muriate of potash (MOP) is produced economically by solar evaporation (Salar de Atacama, Chile; Qarhan sump, China; and the southern Basin of the Dead Sea). In the second article we will focus on sulphate of potash (SOP) production in Quaternary saline sumps (Great Salt Lake, USA and Lop Nur, China). In the third article we shall discuss depositional and diagenetic characteristics of solid-state potash ores some of the world’s more substantial deposits (e.g. Devonian of western Canada) and relate the observations of ancient potash texture to time-based evolution of potash precipitating brines, and subsequent alteration or the ore textures, which are typically driven by later cross-flushing by one or more pulses of diagenetically-evolved brines.


Potash from brine in Salar de Atacama (MOP in a simple near-uniserial set of brine concentration pans)

Potash production in Salar de Atacama is a byproduct of the output of lithium carbonate from shallow lake brines pumped into a series of solar concentration pans (Figure 2). The inflow feed to the concentrator pans comes from fields of brine wells extracting pore waters from the salt nucleus facies across the central and southern part of the Atacama saltflats (Figure 3a,b). However, Atacama pore brines are not chemically homogeneous across the salar (Alonso and Risacher, 1996; Risacher and Alonso, 1996; Carmona et al., 2000; Pueyo et al. 2017). The most common primary inflow brines to the Atacama sump are sulphate-rich (SO4/Ca > 1), but there are areas in the salt flat at the southern end of the playa, such as those near the Península de Chépica, where pore brines are richer in calcium (SO4/Ca < 1- Figure 4). These brines also contain elevated levels of lithium (Figure 3c; Risacher et al., 2003).


Ion proportions in the natural salar inflows and pore waters are dominated by sodium and chloride, followed by potassium, then magnesium then sulphate in the more saline regions of the salar sump (Figure 4; Lowenstein and Risacher, 2009). In addition, owing to the progressive reduction of porosity with depth, driven mainly by diagenetic halite cementation, the pore brine in the upper 40 meters of the salar sediment column accumulates by advection in the area of greatest porosity, i.e., in this top 40 m of sediments of the salt flat at the southern end of Atacama (Pueyo et al., 2017). When pumped from the hosting salar sediments into the concentrator pans, the final brines contain elevated levels of lithium chloride (≈ 6000 ppm). These lithium-enriched acidic waters are then pumped to a nearby industrial plant and processed to obtain lithium carbonate as the main commercial product.

In a benchmark paper, Pueyo et al. (2017) document the brine evolution and products recovered in the solar pans of Rockwood Lithium GmbH (Figure 2b; formerly Sociedad Chilena del Litio) in the Península de Chépica. There, a bittern paragenesis of salts precipitates that is mostly devoid of magnesium sulphate salt due to the low levels of sulphate attained in the various concentator pans via widespread precipitation of gypsum in the early concentrator pans (Figures 4, 5).


The depletion of sulphate levels in the early concentrators is done via artificial manipulation of ionic proportions in the feeders. Without alteration of the ionic proportion in halite-stage brines, the evaporation of the saltflat brine feeds, which are rich in sulfate, would result in assemblages that, in addition to potassic chlorides, would contain contain problematic magnesium sulfates (such as schoenite, kainite, glaserite as in Great Salt Lake). The presence of such sulphate salts and ions in the liquor feeding the lithium carbonate plant would complicate the lithium carbonate extraction process. So the aim in the Atacama pans is to remove most of the sulphate via constructing a suitably balanced chemistry in the early concentrator brine stage (compare ionic proportion in sulphate between early and end-stage bitterns, as illustrated in Figures 4 and Figure 5a).


Such a sylvite/carnallite brine paragenesis, sans sulphate (as seen in Figure 5), is similar to that envisaged as the feed chemistry for ancient Mg-sulphate-free marine potash deposits (Braitsch, 1971). That is, as the brines pass through the concentrators, with successive pans transitioning to higher salinities, the potash salts carnallite and sylvite precipitate, without the complication of the widespread magnesium sulphate salts, which complicate the processing of modern marine-derived bitterns. Such MgSO4 double-salts typify SOP production in the Ogden Salt flats, with their primary feed of sulphate-rich Great Salt Lake waters. Relative proportions of sulphate are much higher in the Great Salt Lake brine feed (see article 2 in this series).


Once the balance is accomplished by mixing a Ca-rich brine from further up the concentration series, with the natural SO4-brine in an appropriate ratio, the modified brines are then pumped and discharged into the halite ponds of the saltwork circuit (ponds number 17 and 16, as seen in Figures 5 and 6). In these ponds, halite precipitates from the very beginning with small amounts of accessory gypsum as brines are saturated with both minerals. Subsequently, the brines are transferred to increasingly smaller ponds where halite (ponds 15 and 14), halite and sylvite (pond 13), sylvite (ponds 12, 11 and 10), sylvite and carnallite (pond 9), carnallite (pond 8), carnallite and bischofite (pond 7), bischofite (ponds 6, 5 and 4), bischofite with some lithium-carnallite [LiClMgCl26H2O] (pond 3), and lithium-carnallite (ponds 2 and 1) precipitate. The brines of the last ponds (R-1 to R-3), whose volumes undergo a reduction to 1/50th of the starting volume, are treated at the processing factory to obtain lithium carbonate as the main commercial product.

As documented in Pueyo et al. (2017), the average daily temperature in the Salar de Atacama ranges between 22 °C in February and 8 °C in July, with a maximum oscillation of approximately 14 °C. Wind speed ranges daily from< 2 ms−1 in the morning to 15 ms−1 in the afternoon. Rainfall in the area of the salt flat corresponds to that of a hyperarid desert climate with an annual average, for the period 1988–2011, of 28 mm at San Pedro de Atacama, 15.1 mm at Peine and 11.6 mm at the lithium saltworks, in the last case ranging between 0 and 86 mm for individual years. The adjoining Altiplano to the east has an arid climate with an average annual rainfall of approximately 100 mm. The average relative humidity in the saltpan area, for the period 2006–2011, is 19.8% with a maximum around February (27%) and a minimum in October (15%) and with a peak in the morning when it may reach 50%. The low relative humidity and the high insolation (direct radiation of 3000 kWh m−2 yr−1) in the salt flat increase the efficiency of solar evaporation, giving rise to the precipitation and stability of very deliquescent minerals such as carnallite and bischofite. The average annual evaporation value measured in the period 1998–2011, using the salt flat interstitial brine, is approximately 2250 mm with a peak in December–January and a minimum in June–July. This cool high-altitude hyperarid climatic setting, where widespread sylvite and carnallite accumulates on the pan floor, is tectonically and climatically distinct from the hot-arid subsealevel basinwide desert seep settings envisaged for ancient marine-fed potash basins (as discussed in the upcoming third article in this series).

MOP from brine Dabuxum/Qarhan region, Qaidam Basin, China

The Qarhan saltflat/playa is now the largest hypersaline sump within the disaggregated lacustrine system that makes up the hydrology of Qaidam Basin, China (Figure 7a). The Qaidam basin sump has an area of some 6,000 km2, is mostly underlain by bedded Late Quaternary halite. Regionally, the depression is endorheic, fed by the Golmud, Qarhan and Urtom (Wutumeiren) rivers in the south and the Sugan River in the north, and today is mostly covered by a layered halite pan crust. Below, some 0 to 1.3m beneath the playa surface, is the watertable atop a permanent hypersaline groundwater brine lens (Figure 7b).


The southern Qaidam sump entrains nine perennial salt lakes: Seni, Dabiele, Xiaobiele, Daxi, Dabuxum (Dabsan Hu), Tuanjie, Xiezuo and Fubuxum north and south lakeshore (Figure 7). Dabuxum Lake, which occupies the central part of the Qarhan sump region, is the largest of the perennial lakes (184 km2; Figures 7b, 8a). Lake water depths vary seasonally from 20cm to 1m and never deeper than a metre, even when flooded. Salt contents in the various lakes range from 165 to 360 g/l, with pH ranging between 5.4 and 7.85. Today the salt plain and pans of the Qarhan playa are fed mostly by runoff from the Kunlun Mountains (Kunlun Shan), along with input from a number of saline groundwater springs concentrated along a fault trend defining an area of salt karst along the northern edge of the Dabuxum sump, especially north of Xiezuo Lake (Figure 8a).


The present climate across the Qaidam Basin is cool, arid to hyperarid (BWk), with an average yearly rainfall of 26 mm, mean annual evaporation is 3000–3200 mm, and a yearly mean temperature 2-4° C in the central basin (An et al., 2012). The various salt lakes and playas spread across the basin and contain alternating climate-dependent evaporitic sedimentary sequences. Across the basin the playa sumps are surrounded by aeolian deposits and wind-eroded landforms (yardangs). In terms of potash occurrence, the most significant region in the Qaidam Basin is the Qarhan sump or playa (aka Chaerhan Salt Lake), which occupies a landscape low in front of the outlets of the Golmud and Qarhan rivers (Figure 7a, b). Overall the Qaidam Basin displays a typical exposed lacustrine geomorphology and desert landscape, related to increasing aridification in a cool desert setting. In contrast, the surrounding elevated highlands are mostly typified by a high-alpine tundra (ET) Köppen climate.


Bedded and displacive salts began to accumulate in the Qarhan depression some 50,000 years ago (Figure 9). Today, outcropping areas of surface salt crust consist of a chaotic mixture of fine-grained halite crystals and mud, with a rugged, pitted upper surface (Schubel and Lowenstein, 1997; Duan and Hu, 2001). Vadose diagenetic features, such as dissolution pits, cavities and pendant cements, form wherever the salt crust lies above the watertable. Interbedded salts and siliciclastic sediments underlying the crust reach thicknesses of upwards of 70m (Kezao and Bowler, 1986).

Bedded potash, as carnallite, precipitates naturally in transient volumetrically-minor lake strandzone (stratoid) beds about the northeastern margin of Lake Dabuxum (Figure 8a) and as cements in Late Pleistocene bedded deposits exposed in and below nearby Lake Tuanje in what is known as the sediments of the Dadong ancient lake (Figure 8b). Ongoing freshened sheetflow from the up-dip bajada fans means the proportion of carnallite versus halite in the evaporite unit increases with distance from the Golmud Fan across, both the layered (bedded) and stratoid (cement) modes of occurrence.

At times in the past, when the watertable was lower, occasional meteoric inflow was also the driver for the brine cycling that created the karst cavities hosting the halite and carnallite cements that formed as prograde cements during cooling of the sinking brine (Figure 9). Solid bedded potash salts are not present in sufficient amounts to be quarried, and most of the exploited potash resource resides in interstitial brines that are pumped and processed using solar ponds.

Modern halite crusts in Qarhan playa contain the most concentrated brine inclusions of the sampled Quaternary halites, suggesting that today may be the most desiccated period in the Qarhan-Tuanje sump recorded over the last 50,000 years (values in the inset in figure 9 were measured on clear halite-spar void-fill crystals between chevrons). Inclusion measurements from these very early diagenetic halite show they formed syndepositionally from shallow groundwater brines and confirm the climatic record derived from adjacent primary (chevron) halite. The occurrence of carnallite-saturated brines in fluid inclusions in the diagenetic halite in the top 13 m of Qarhan playa sediments also imply a prograde diagenetic, not depositional, origin of carnallite, which locally accumulated in the same voids as the more widespread microkarst halite-spar cements.

Today, transient surficial primary carnallite rafts can accumulate along the northern strandline of Lake Dabuxum (Figure 9; Casas, 1992; Casas et al., 1992). Compositions of fluid inclusions in the older primary (chevron) halite beds hosting carnallite cements in the various Qarhan salt crusts represent preserved lake brines and indicate relatively wetter conditions throughout most of the Late Pleistocene (Yang et al., 1995). Oxygen isotope signatures of the inclusions record episodic freshening and concentration during the formation of the various salt units interlayered with lacustrine muds. Desiccation events, sufficient to allow halite beds to accumulate, occurred a number of times in the Late Quaternary: 1) in a short-lived event ≈ 50,000 ka, 2) from about 17 - 8,000 ka, and 3) from about 2,000 ka till now (Figure 9).

The greatest volume of water entering Dabuxum Lake comes from the Golmud River (Figure 7b). Cold springs, emerging from a narrow karst zone some 10 km to the north of the Dabuxum strandline and extending hundreds of km across the basin, also supply solutes to the lake. The spring water discharging along this fault-defined karst zone is chemically similar to hydrothermal CaCl2 basin-sourced waters as defined by Hardie (1990), and are interpreted as subsurface brines that have risen to the surface along deep faults to the north of the Dabuxum sump (Figure 9, 10; Spencer et al., 1990; Lowenstein and Risacher, 2009). Depths from where the Ca–Cl spring waters rise is not known. Subsurface lithologies of the Qaidam Basin in this region contains Jurassic and younger sediments and sedimentary rock columns, up to 15 km thick, which overlie Proterozoic metamorphic rocks (Wang and Coward, 1990).


Several lakes located near the northern karst zone (Donglin, North Huobusun, Xiezhuo, and Huobusun) receive sufficient Ca–Cl inflow, more than 1 part spring inflow to 40 parts river inflow, to form mixtures with chemistries of Ca equivalents > equivalents HCO3 + SO4 to create a simple potash evaporation series (this is indicated by the Ca-Cl trend line in Figure 10a). With evaporation such waters, after precipitation of calcite and gypsum, evolve into Ca–Cl-rich, HCO3–SO4-poor brines (brines numbered 5, 7-12 in figure 11a).


Dabuxum is the largest lake in the Qarhan region, with brines that are Na–Mg–K–Cl dominant, with minor Ca and SO4 (Figure 10d, 11a). These brines are interpreted by Lowenstein and Risacher (2009) to have formed from a mix of ≈40 parts river water to 1 part spring inflow, so that the equivalents of Ca ≈ equivalents HCO3 + SO4 (Figure 10b). Brines with this ratio of river to spring inflow lose most of their Ca, SO4, and HCO3 after precipitation of CaCO3 and CaSO4, and so form Na–K–Mg–Cl brines capable of precipitating carnallite and sylvite (Figure 11a). This chemistry is similar to that of ancient MgSO4-depleted marine bitterns (Figure 1)

The chemical composition of surface brines in the various lakes on the Qarhan Salt plain vary and appear to be controlled by the particular blend of river and spring inflows into the local lake/playa sump. In turn, this mix is controlled geographically by proximity to river mouths and the northern karst zone. Formation of marine-like ionic proportions in some lakes, such as Tuanje, Dabuxum and ancient Dadong Lake, engender bitterns suitable for the primary and secondary precipitation of sylvite/carnallite (Figures 10b-d; 11a). The variation in the relative proportion of sulphate to chloride in the feeder brines is a fundamental control on the suitability of the brine as a potash producer.

Figure 11b clearly illustrates sulphate to chloride variation in pore waters in the region to the immediate north and east of Dabuxum Lake. Brine wells in the low-sulphate area are drawn upon to supply feeder brines to the carnallite precipitating ponds. The hydrochemistry of this region is a clear indication of the regional variation in the sump hydrochemistry (Duan and Hu, 2001), but also underlines why it is so important to understand pore chemistry, and variations in aquifer porosity and permeability, when designing a potash plant in a Quaternary saline setting.

Compared to the MOP plant in Atacama, there as yet no lithium carbonate extraction stream to help ameliorate costs associated with carnallite processing. Lithium levels in the Qaidam brines, whilee levated, are much lower than in the Atacama brine feeds. Regionally, away from the Tuanje-Dadong area, most salt-lake and pore brines in the Qaidam flats are of the magnesium sulphate subtype and the ratio of Mg/Li can be as high as 500. With such brine compositions, the chemical precipitation approach, which is successfully applied to lithium extraction using low calcium and magnesium brines (such as those from Zabuye and Jezecaka Lake on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Andean Altiplano), would consume a large quantity of chemicals and generate a huge amount of solid waste. Accordingly, brine operations in the Qarhan region are focused on MOP production from a carnallitite slurry using extraction techniques similar to those utilised in the Southern Dead Sea. But owing to its cooler climate compared to the Dead Sea sump, the pond chemistry is subject to lower evaporation rates, higher moisture levels in the product, and a longer curing time.

Potash in the Qarhan region is produced by the Qinghai Salt Lake Potash Company, which owns the 120-square-kilometer salt lake area near Golmud (Figure 7). The company was established and listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 1997. Currently, it specialises in the manufacture of MOP from pore brines pumped from appropriate low-sulphate regions in the lake sediments (Figure 12). The MOP factory processes a carnallite slurry pumped from pans using a slurry processing stream very similar to the dual process stream utilized in the pans of the Southern Basin in the Dead Sea and discussed in the next section.

The final potash product in the Qaidam sump runs 60-62% K2O with >2% moisture and is distributed under the brand name of “Yanqiao.” With annual production ≈3.5 million tonnes and a projected reserve ≈ 540 million tonnes, the company currently generates 97% of Chinese domestic MOP production. However, China’s annual agricultural need for potash far outpaces this level of production. The company is jointly owned by Qinghai Salt Lake Industry Group and Sinochem Corporation and is the only domestic producer of a natural MOP product.

Dead Sea Potash (MOP operation in the Southern Basin)

The Dead Sea water surface defines what is the deepest continental position (-417 m asl) on the earth’s current terrestrial surface. In the Northen Basin is our only modern example of bedded evaporitic sediments (halite and gypsum) accumulating on the subaqueous floor of a deep brine body, where water depths are hundreds of metres (Warren, 2016). This salt-encrusted depression is 80 km long and 20 km wide, has an area of 810 km2, is covered by a brine volume of 147 km3 and occupies the lowest part of a drainage basin with a catchment area of 40,650 km2 (Figure 13a). However, falling water levels in the past few decades mean the permanent water mass now only occupies the northern part of the lake, while saline anthropogenic potash pans occupy the Southern Basin, so that the current perennial “Sea” resides in the Northern Basin is now only some 50 km long (Figure 13b).


Rainfall in the region is 45 to 90 mm, evaporation around 1500 mm, and air temperatures between 11 and 21°C in winter and 18 to 40°C in summer, with a recorded maximum of 51°C. The subsiding basin is surrounded by mountain ranges to the east and west, producing an orographic rain shadow that further emphasises the aridity of the adjacent desert sump. The primary source of solutes in the perennial lake is ongoing dissolution of the halokinetic salts of the Miocene Sedom Fm (aka Usdum Fm) a marine evaporite unit that underlies the Dead Sea and approaches the surface in diapiric structures beneath the Lisan Straits and at Mt. Sedom (Garfunkel and Ben-Avraham, 1996).

A series of linked fractionation ponds have been built in the Southern Basin of the Dead Sea to further concentrate pumped Dead Sea brine to the carnallite stage (Figure 13). On the Israeli side this is done by the Dead Sea Works Ltd. (owned by ICL Fertilisers), near Mt. Sedom, and by the Arab Potash Company (APC) at Ghor al Safi on the Jordanian side. ICL is 52.3% owned by Israel Corporation Ltd.(considered as under Government control), 13.6% shares held by Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and 33.6% shares held by various institutional investors and the general public (33.64%). In contrast, PotashCorp owns 28% of APC shares, the Government of Jordan 27%, Arab Mining Company 20%, with the remainder held by several small Middle Eastern governments and a public float that trades on the Amman Stock Exchange. This gives PotashCorp control on how APC product is marketed, but it does not control how DSW product is sold.

In both the DSW and APC brine fields, muriate of potash is extracted by processing carnallitite slurries, created by sequential evaporation in a series of linked, gravity-fed fractionation ponds. The inflow brine currently pumped from the Dead Sea has a density of ≈1.24 gm/cc, while after slurry extraction the residual brine, with a density of ≈1.34 gm/cc, is pumped back into the northern Dead Sea basin water mass. The total area of the concentration pans is more than 250 km2, within the total area of 1,000 km2, which is the southern Dead Sea floor. The first stage in the evaporation process is pumping of Dead Sea water into header ponds and into the gravity-fed series of artificial fractionation pans that now cover the Southern Basin floor. With the ongoing fall of the Dead Sea water level over the past 60 years, brines from the Northern Basin must be pumped higher and over further lateral distances. This results in an ongoing need for more powerful brine pumps and an increasing problem with karst dolines related to lowered Dead Sea water levels. Saturation stages of the evolving pan brines are monitored and waters are moved from pan to pan as they are subject to the ongoing and intense levels of natural solar evaporation (Figure 13b, c; Karcz and Zak, 1987).

The artificial salt ponds of the Dead Sea are unusual in that they are designed to trap and discard most of the halite precipitate rather than harvest it. Most other artificial salt ponds around the world are shallow pans purpose-designed as ephemeral water-holding depressions that periodically dry out so that salts can be scrapped and harvested. In contrast, the Dead Sea halite ponds are purpose-designed to be permanently subaqueous and relatively deep (≈4m). Brine levels in the ponds vary by a few decimetres during the year, and lowstand levels generally increase each winter when waste brine is pumped back into the northern basin.

As the Dead Sea brine thickens, minor gypsum, then voluminous halite precipitates on the pan floor in the upstream section of the concentration series, where the halite-precipitating-brines have densities > 1.2 gm/cc (Figure 13c). As the concentrating brines approach carnallite-precipitating densities (around 1.3 gm/cc), they are allowed to flow into the carnallite precipitating ponds (Figure 13c). Individual pans have areas around 6-8 km2 and brine depths up to 2 metres. During the early halite concentration stages, a series of problematic halite reefs or mushroom polygons can build to the brine surface and so compartmentalise and entrap brines within isolated pockets enclosed by the reefs. This hinders the orderly downstream progression of increasingly saline brines into the carnallite ponds, with the associated loss of potash product.


When the plant was first designed, the expectation was that halite would accumulate on the floor of the early fractionation ponds as flat beds and crusts, beneath permanent holomictic brine layers. The expected volume of salt was deposited in the pans each year (Talbot et al., 1996), but instead of accumulating on a flat floor aggrading 15-20 cm each year, halite in some areas aggraded into a series of polygonally-linked at-surface salt reefs (aka salt mushrooms). Then, instead of each brine lake/pan being homogenized by wind shear across a single large subaqueous ponds, the salt reefs separated the larger early ponds into thousands of smaller polygonally-defined inaccessible compartments, where the isolated brines developed different compositions (Figure 14). Carnallitite slurries crystallised in inter-reef compartments from where it could not be easily harvested, so large volumes of potential potash product were locked up in the early fractionation ponds (Figure 14a, b). Attempts to drown the reefs by maintaining freshened waters in the ponds during the winters of 1984 and 1985 were only partly successful. The current approach to the salt reef problem in the early fractionation ponds is to periodically breakup and remove the halite reefs and mushrooms by a combination of dredging and occasional blasting (Figure 14c).


Unlike seawater feeds to conventional marine coastal saltworks producing halite with marine inflow salinities ≈35‰, the inflow brine pumped into the header ponds from the Dead Sea already has a salinity of more than 300‰ (Figure 15). Massive halite precipitation occurs quickly, once the brine attains a density of 1.235 (≈340‰) and reaches a maximum at a density of 1.24 (Figure 13c). Evaporation is allowed to continue in the initial halite concentrator ponds until the original water volume pumped into the pond has been halved. Concentrated halite-depleted brine is then pumped through a conveyance canal into a series of smaller evaporation ponds where carnallite, along with minor halite and gypsum precipitates (Figure 13c). Around 300–400 mm of carnallite salt slurry is allowed to accumulate in the carnallite ponds, with 84% pure carnallite and 16% sodium chloride as the average chemical composition (Figure 6a; Abu-Hamatteh and Al-Amr, 2008). The carnallite bed is harvested (pumped) from beneath the brine in slurry form and is delivered through corrosion-resistant steel pipes to the process refineries via a series of powerful pumps.

This carnallitite slurry is harvested using purpose-specific dredges floating across the crystalliser ponds. These dredges not only pump the slurry to the processing plant but also undertake the early part of the processing stream. On the dredge, the harvested slurry is crushed and size sorted, with the coarser purer crystals separated for cold crystallisation. The remainder is slurried with the residual pan brine and then further filtered aboard the floating dredges. At this stage in the processing stream the dredges pipe the treated slurries from the pans to the refining plant.


On arrival at the processing plant, raw product is then used to manufacture muriate of potash, salt, magnesium chloride, magnesium oxide, hydrochloric acid, bath salts, chlorine, caustic soda and magnesium metal (Figure 16a). Residual brine after carnallitite precipitation contain about 11-12 g/l bromide and is used for the production of bromine, before the waste brine (with a density around 1.34 gm/cc) is returned to the northern Dead Sea water mass. The entire cycle from the slurry harvesting to MOP production takes as little as five hours.

In the initial years of both DSW and APC operations, MOP was refined from the carnallite slurry via hot leaching and flotation. In the coarser-crystalline carnallitite feed, significant volumes of sylvite are now produced more economically in a cold crystallisation plant (Figure 16b). The cold crystallisation process takes place at ambient temperature and is less energy-intensive than the hot crystallisation unit. The method also consumes less water but requires a higher and more consistent grade of carnallite feed (Mansour and Takrouri, 2007; Abu-Hamatteh and Al-Amr, 2008). Both hot (thermal) and cold production methods can be utilized in either plant, depending on the quality of the slurry feed.

Sylvite is produced via cold crystallisation using the addition of water to incongruently dissolve the magnesium chloride from the crystal structure. If the carnallite slurry contains only a small amount of halite, the solid residue that remains after water flushing is mostly sylvite. As is shown in Figure 16b, if the MgCl2 concentration is at or near the triple-saturation point (the point at which the solution is saturated with carnallite, NaCl, and KCl), the KCl solubility is suppressed to the point where most of it will precipitate as sylvite. For maximum recovery, the crystallising mixture must be saturated with carnallite at its triple-saturation point. If the mixture is not saturated, for example, it contains higher levels of NaCl, then more KCl will dissolve during the water flushing of the slurry. Industrially, the cold crystallizers are usually fed with both coarse and fine carnallite streams, such that 10% carnallite remains in the slurry, this can be achieved by adjusting addition of process water (Mansour and Takrouri, 2007).

Successful cold crystallisation depends largely on a consistent high-quality carnallite feed. If a large amount of halite is present in the feed slurry, the resulting solid residue from cold crystallisation is sylvinite, not sylvite. This needs to be further refined by hot crystallisation, a more expensive extraction method based on the fact that the solubility of sylvite varies significantly with increasing temperature, while that of salt remains relatively constant (Figure 16c). As potash brine is hot leached from the sylvinite, the remaining halite is filtered off, and the brine is cooled under controlled conditions to yield sylvite.

Residual brine from the crystallisation processes then undergoes electrolysis to yield chlorine, caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and hydrogen. Chlorine is then reacted with brine filtered from the pans to produce bromine. The caustic soda is sold, and the hydrogen is used to make bromine compounds, with the excess being burnt as fuel. Bromine distilled from the brine is sold partly as elemental bromine, and partly in the form of bromine compounds produced in the bromine plant at Ramat Hovav (near Beer Sheva). This is the largest bromine plant in the world, and Israel is the main exporter of bromine to Europe. About 200,000 tons of bromine are produced each year.

Residual magnesium chloride-rich solutions created by cold crystallisation are concentrated and sold as flakes for use in the chemical industry and for de-icing (about 100,000 tons per year) and dirt road de-dusting. Part of the MgCl2 solution produced is sold to the nearby Dead Sea Periclase plant (a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals Ltd.). At this plant, the brine is decomposed thermally to give an extremely pure magnesium oxide (periclase) and hydrochloric acid. In Israel, Dead Sea Salt Work’s (DSW) production has risen to more than 2.9 Mt KCl since 2005, continuing a series of increments and reflecting an investment in expanded capacity, the streamlining of product throughput in the mill facilities, and the amelioration of the effects salt mushrooms, and increased salinity of the Dead Sea due to extended drought conditions (Figure 17).

On the other side of the truce line in Jordan, the Arab Potash Co. Ltd. (APC) output rose to 1.94 Mt KCl in 2010 The APC plant now has the capacity to produce 2.35 Mt KCl and like the DSW produces bromine from bittern end brines. Early in the pond concentration stream, APC also has to remove salt mushrooms from its ponds, a process which when completed can increase carnallite output by over 50,000 t/yr. Currently, APC is continuing with an expansion program aimed at increasing potash capacity to 2.5 Mt/yr.


MOP brines and Quaternary climate

As mentioned in the introduction, exploited Quaternary potash deposits encompass both MOP and SOP mineral associations across a range of climatic and elevation settings. This article focuses on the three main MOP producing examples, the next deals with SOP Quaternary producers (Great Salt Lake, USA and Lop Nur, China). Interestingly, both sets of Quaternary examples are nonmarine brine-fed depositional hydrologies. All currently-active economic potash plants hosted in Quaternary systems do not mine a solid product but derive their potash solar evaporation of pumped hypersaline lake brines. For MOP processing to be economic the sulphate levels in the brines held in bittern-stage concentrator pans must be low and Mg levels are typically high, so favoring the precipitation of carnallite over sylvite in all three systems.

In Salar de Atacama the low sulphate levels in the bittern stage is accomplished by artificially mixing a CaCl2 brine from further up the evaporation stream with a less saline more sulphate-enriched brine. The mixing proportions of the two brine streams aims to maximise the level of extraction/removal of CaSO4 in the halite pans prior to the precipitation of sylvite and carnallite. In the case of the pans in the Qarhan sump there is a similar but largely natural mixing of river waters with fault-fed salt-karst spring waters in a ratio of 40:1 that creates a hybrid pore brine with a low sulphate chemistry suitable for the precipitation of both natural and pan carnallite. In the case of the Dead Sea brine feed, the inflowing Dead Sea waters are naturally low in sulphate and high in magnesium. The large size of this natural brine feed systems and its homogeneous nature allows for a moderate cost of MOP manufacture estimated in Warren 2016, chapter 11 to be US$ 170/tonne. The Qarhan production cost is less ≈ US$ 110/tonne but the total reserve is less than in the brine system of the Dead Sea. In Salar de Atacama region the MOP cost is likely around US$ 250-270/tonne, but this is offset by the production of a bischofite stage brine suitable for lithium carbonate extraction.

Outside of these three main Quaternary-feed MOP producers there are a number of potash mineral occurrences in intermontane depressions in the high Andes in what is a high altitude polar tundra setting (Koeppen ET), none of which are commercial (Figure 18a). Similarly, there a number of non-commercial potash (SOP) mineral and brine occurrences in various hot arid desert regions in Australia, northern Africa and the Middle East (Koeppen BWh) that we shall look at in the next article. In the Danakhil depression there is the possibility of a future combined MOP/SOP plant (see Salty Matters April 19, 2015; April 29, 2015; May 1, 2015; May12, 2015 and Bastow et al., 2018). In the Danakhil it is important to distinguish between the current non-potash climate (BWh - Koeppen climate) over the Dallol saltflat in Ethiopia, with its nonmarine brine feed and the former now-buried marine fed potash (SOP)/halite evaporite system. The latter is the target of current exploration efforts in the basin, focused on sediments now buried 60-120m below the Dallol saltflat surface. Nowhere in the Quaternary are such dry arid desert climates (BWh) associated with commercial accumulations of potash minerals.


Climatically most commercial potash brine systems in Quaternary-age sediments are located in cooler endorheic intermontane depressions (BWk, BSk) or in the case of the Dead Sea an intermontane position in the sump of the Dead Sea, the deepest position of any continental landscape on the earth’s surface (-417 msl). The association with somewhat cooler and or less arid steppe climates implies a need for greater volumes of brine to reside in a landscape in order to facilitate the precipitation of significant volumes of potash bitterns (Figure 18a,b).

In summary, all three currently economic Quaternary MOP operations are producing by pumping nonmarine pore or saline lake brines into a series of concentrator pans. The final bittern chemistry in all three is a low-sulphate liquour, but with inherently high levels of magnesium that favors the solar pan production of carnallite over sylvite that is then processed to produce the final KCl product. The brine chemistry in all three examples imitates the ionic proportions obtained when evaporating a ancient sulphate-depleted seawater (Figure 1). The next article will discuss the complexities (the double salt problem at the potash bittern stage when concentrating a more sulphate-enriched mother brine.

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Aeolian Gypsum and Saline Pans - an indicator of climate change

John Warren - Friday, June 30, 2017

Introduction

Evaporites deposited as aeolian dunes are not commonplace in Quaternary successions and not yet documented in any pre-Quaternary succession (Table 1). These eolian deposits are deposited above the water table in a vadose setting, generally in a degrading playa or salt lake hydrology. Consequently, there is an inherent low preservation potential for this style of evaporite; most documented examples are less than a few tens of thousands of years old.

 

Even though relatively rare as an evaporite type, the presence of eolian evaporites, usually as gypsum dunes or lunettes with associated soils and saline mudflats, does indicate particular climatic and hydrological conditions. Eolian gypsum deposits may have possible counterparts in the Martian landscape (Szynkiewicz et el., 2010).

Over the Quaternary and across the Australian continental interior, increased aridity is expressed by episodes of dune reactivation, lake basin deflation with eroded sediment accumulating downwind in transverse dunes or lunettes (Bowler, 1973; Fitzsimmons et al., 2007), Deposition is tied to increased dust mobility (Hesse and McTainsh, 2003) and reduced river discharge and channel size (Nanson et al., 1995). Such responses to increasing landscape aridity in saline groundwater sumps are seen in most arid to semi-arid regions of the world where water tables are falling, usually driven by increasing aridity.

This article focuses on eroded subaerial evaporites as a response to increasing aridity, especially the formation of gypsum dunes and lunettes (Table 1; Figure 1).


Gypsum dune styles and saline pans

Figure 1 and Table 1 plot documented occurrences of eolian gypsum across the world, overlain on a Koeppen climate base (Figure 1a). Figure 1b plots the latitudinal occurrences of documented gypsum dunes versus elevation and Koppen climate type. Figures 1c and 1d plot the detail of these same occurrences for the USA and Australia, where individual deposits are better documented. At the worldscale, there is an obvious tie to the world's desert belts with occurrences consistently situated in regions of the cool dry descending cells of northern and southern hemisphere Hadley cells (positions indicated by light blue rectangles in Figure 1b - See also Salty Matters article from Jan. 31, 2017). Many occurrences are also situated in Late Pleistocene to Holocene climate transition zones, marked by aridification at the transition from Late Pleistocene to Holocene climates, and in many case tied to transitions from perennial saline lakes and mega-lakes to continental saltflats to dunes and interdunal pans, An example of a quartz sand erg association (downwind of a gypsiferous strandzone) is seen in the transition area into the southern Kallakoopah Pans from the northern margin of Lake Eyre, Australia and its megalake precursor (Figure 2).


At the local scale, gypsum dunes generally occur downwind or atop a saline pan or playa that is, or was, recently subject to a lowering of its lacustrine watertable. In many situations the elongation of individual pan shapes line up in an orthogonal direction to the dominant wind and so also show an eolian control, like the associated gypsum dune position and alignment (Figure 3). Wind-aligned lakes and sumps and oriented-pans are much more numerous with a broader climatic range than gypsum dunes (Goudie and Wells, 1995; Goudie et al., 2016). When present, eolian bedforms associated with oriented pans lacking evaporites are dominated by clay pellets or quartz sand.


Many of the pan edge dunes show crescent shapes and so are termed lunettes. (Figure 3; Bowler, 1973). Lunette sediments range in composition from quartz-rich to sandy clay, gypsiferous clay to nearly pure gypsum. Pure quartz dune lunettes likely formed under lake-full conditions, and so show a distinct hydrology from that of the clay pellet or gypsum-rich varieties, which form by deflation of subaerially-exposed adjacent lake floors. The flocculation of suspended clays into pellets requires some degree of salinity but is less than that required to precipitate gypsum.

Lunette sediments range in composition from quartz-rich, sandy clay, through gypseous clay to nearly pure gypsum. Pure quartz dunes formed under lake-full conditions and are distinct from that of the clay and gypsum-rich varieties, which formed by flocculation and deflation from adjacent subaerially exposed lake floors. (Bowler, 1986). Gypsum and pelleted clay dunes (lunettes) line the edges of many salt lakes and playas in southeastern, southern and southwestern Australia; Prungle Lakes and Lake Fowler (gypsum lunettes), Lake Tyrell (clay lunette with occassional gypsum enrichment) and Lake Mungo (quartz sand lunette). All these lunettes are lake or pan-edge relicts from the Late Pleistocene deflationary period, when the lacustrine hydrology changed from perennial water-filled lakes to desiccated mudflats. Likewise, there are gypsum dunes in deflationary depressions in Salt Flat Playa and the Bonneville/Great Salt Lake region of Utah (Figure 4; Table 1).


Internal sedimentary structures in many of these lake-edge gypsum dunes or lunettes show tabular cross beds with consistent bedform orientation. Many lack abundant trough or festoon cross beds, suggesting consistent wind directions (Jones 1953; Bowler, 1973, 1983). Grain constituents clearly indicate deflation of former lake sediments, which were mostly vadose prior to deflation and passage into the dunes (Figure 4).

Gypsum dunes are part of a much broader lake-edge eolian sandflat association with the lakes often supplying large volumes of quartzose eolian sediment into adjacent sand seas or ergs (Figure 2; Warren, 2016). As mentioned pan-edge dunes described as ‘lunettes’ have a characteristic crescentic shape, other lake edge dunes may show more linear or longitudinal outlines, sometimes with parts of large sand seas or ergs being fed by the deflation of the salt lake or pan as at the southern edge of the Simpson Desert in Australia where it is in contact with the expanding and contracting edge of (Lake Eyre Figure 2).

Hydrological transitions from downwind evaporite dunes and lunettes

The role of salts, groundwater oscillations and the associated lake water levels/watertables are critical in creating eolian evaporites. Typically, once seasonal drying of an increasing arid lake floor sump begins, remaining surface waters with suspended clay become saline enough for the clay to flocculate and sink to the bottom of the desiccating water mass. If surface water concentration continues and the water surface sinks into the sediments to become a saline water table, then secondary gypsum prisms and nodules grow within the capillary zone of already-deposited sediment. In waters that are increasingly saline but not saturated with gypsum or halite, pelletization can continue to occur in the capillary fringe of clayey surface sediment (Figure 5).


Ongoing seasonal aridity further lowers the watertable in a saline mudflat, so the upper part of the vadose sediment column leaves the top of the capillary zone. It then deflates, leading to an accumulation of sand-sized sediment in adjacent eolian lunettes. If there is a prevailing wind direction, this builds significant volumes of dune sediment in a particular wind-aligned quadrant of the saline pan edge. Whether clay pellets or gypsum crystals are the dominant lunette component depends on the humidity inherent to the pan climate. In hyperarid situations, halite can be an eolian component in the lake hydrology (Salar de Uyuni; Svendsen, 2003).

In some lunettes, the mineralogy changes according to climate-driven changes in the hydrogeochemistry of the lake waters sourcing the lunette. For example in the Lake Tyrell lunette in semi-arid southwest Australia, the sediments in a layer range from clay pellets (75%) and dolomite (25%) in somewhat humid times of deflation to layers, with gypsum making up >90%, indicative of a more arid hydrochemistry. Lunettes associated with the shrinkage and deflation of Late Pleistocene Estancia megalake (New Mexico, USA) show similar variations in the proportions of clay pellet and gypsum sands in lake margin deposits around the edges of up to 120 blowout depressions. These blowouts define the former extent of the shrinking megalake and encompass both shoreline and lunette sands (Allen and Anderson, 2000)

Thus, the presence of an active gypsum lunette-field at a saline pan or playa edge is tied to landscape instability and a change from more humid to more arid conditions. To form a lunette requires a change in climate and an associated change in pan or playa hydrology and it hydrological base level and lake edge water table level, over time frames typically measured in hundreds to thousands of years.

 

Not just sand and dust-sized particles

Coarser than sand-sized gypsum crystals are transported in in lake margin mounds under hyperarid windy conditions that typify ephemeral pans and saline mudflats in parts of the Andean Altiplano and even higher elevations in the alpine tundra climatic zones. Salar Gorbea is a type example for this type of coarse-grained eolian transport (Figure 6; Benison, 2017). Whirlwinds, dry convective helical vortices, can move large gypsum crystals in their passage over the saline muflat. The transported gravel-sized crystals are entrained on the saline pan surface, after they first grew subaqueously in shallow surface brine pools. Once the pools dry up the crystal clusters disaggrate and then are transported as much as 5 km to be deposited in large dune-like mounds.

The dune gravel is cemented relatively quickly by gypsum cement precipitating from near-surface saline groundwater, resulting in a gypsum breccia. This documentation marks the first occurrence of gravel-sized evaporite grains being moved efficiently in air by suspension and provides a new possible interpretation for some ancient breccias and conglomerates, and improves understanding of limits of extremity of Earth surface environments.

 

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