Giant Rare Earth Element Accumulation Related to Voluminous, Highly Evolved Carbonatite: A Microanalytical Study of Carbonate Minerals from the Bayan Obo Deposit, China

Xiao Chun Li, Hong Rui Fan, Jian Hui Su, David I. Groves, Kui Feng Yang, Xin Fu Zhao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The giant Bayan Obo deposit in China represents the largest rare earth element (REE) resource in the world, but the mechanisms for its highly anomalous REE enrichment have long been controversial. The central debate concerns the nature and origin of the ore-hosting dolomite. In this study, a texturally constrained microanalytical study of carbonate minerals from the Bayan Obo ore-hosting dolomite is presented to resolve this controversy. The dolomite rocks contain two major components: the early-stage coarse-grained dolomite (CD) and the late-stage fine-grained dolomite (FD). The CD dolomite grains have C-O isotope ratios (δ13CVienna-PeeDee Belemnite (V-PDB): -4.8 to -3.3 ; δ18OVienna-standard mean ocean water (V-SMOW): 7.1 to 11.9 ) plotting in or adjacent to the primary igneous carbonatite field, with a narrow range of low 87Sr/86Sr ratios (0.70262-0.70327). The mantle-like C-O and Sr isotopes indicate that the coarse-grained dolomite rocks are magmatic in origin. Dolomite grains from the FD have experienced extensive hydrothermal alteration related to both REE mineralization and post-ore metamorphism of the Bayan Obo deposit. The domains of primary unaltered dolomite have high SrO and MnO contents that clearly distinguish them from sedimentary carbonates. The 87Sr/86Sr ratios of unaltered dolomite domains range from 0.70271 to 0.70473, with the majority lower than 0.7035, contrasting with higher 87Sr/86Sr ratios of Mesoproterozoic sedimentary carbonates globally. Thus, the primary unaltered fine-grained dolomite, the precursor to the FD, is also proposed to be a carbonatite.Compared with dolomite grains from the CD, most of the unaltered dolomite domains within the FD are more enriched in FeO and MnO and have higher δ13CV-PDB (-4.9 to 0.3 ) and δ18OV-SMOW (9.4 to 17.1 ) values. In addition, the FD contains abundant REE- and volatile-rich hydrothermal minerals and Fe-Mg carbonates, which are rare in the CD. The geochemical and mineralogical data in conjunction indicate that the melts forming the late-stage FD were much more evolved than those forming the early-stage CD. It is noteworthy that the unaltered dolomite domains within the FD have a wider range of 87Sr/86Sr ratios than those within the CD, which implies that the CD and FD, at least a proportion of them, are unlikely to have crystallized from the same progenitor magmas. Some FD was possibly the product of fractionation of less-evolved carbonatitic magma that generated the CD, whereas other FD crystallized from new pulses of magmas that were highly fractionated at depth.When compared with other carbonatite complexes, the Bayan Obo carbonatite suite is notable for having a large surface area (∼48 km2 in outcrop) and containing an anomalously large proportion of highly evolved components. The voluminous evolved carbonatite clearly provided a basis for the accumulation of significant ore metals. Therefore, the giant-sized REE deposit is proposed to be associated with large-volume, highly evolved carbonatite at Bayan Obo.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-393
Number of pages21
JournalEconomic Geology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024


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