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Palabora, Phalaborwa,
Limpopo (Northern) Province, South Africa
Main commodities: Cu Fe P U PGE PGM Au Ag

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The Palabora or Phalaborwa Cu-Fe-P deposit is located immediately adjacent to Kruger Park, near the town of Phalaborwa in Limpopo Province, South Africa, 220 km ENE of Mokopane and 400 km NE of Johannesburg, #Location: 23° 59' 26"S, 31° 7' 47"E.

The copper-iron-phosphate-vermiculite deposit is associated with the Loolekop pipe, an ~2 x 1 km carbonatite core which occupies 6% of the area of the north-south elongated 20 sq. km (~8 x 3 km) Phalaborwa Igneous Complex (2060 Ma), some 150 km to the east of the eastern lobe of the related Bushveld Complex (2050 Ma).

The Phalaborwa Complex is predominantly composed of dunite, pyroxenite and apatite-rich pegmatoidal pyroxenite, with varying proportions of diopside, phlogopite and apatite, ranging in texture from fine and medium grained to pegmatoidal zones. A feldspathic pyroxenite zone occupies much of the outer rim with the intruded Archaean granite gneiss country rock.

The Palabora complex and Archaean country rock granite gneisses are overprinted by a destructive metasomatic halo, reflected by satellite intrusions, alteration zones, and aeromagnetic anomalies that extend for tens of kilometres from Palabora itself. This halo is largely the result of metasomatism (fenitisation) by K-Na-Ca-Fe-Mg and CO2 - rich magmatic chloride brines (with abundant volatiles, particularly fluorine) emplaced at a depth of ~12 km.

Within the Phalaborwa Complex there are three cores of pegmatoidal pyroxenite with pyroxene and mica crystals up to 10 to 20 cm long. These are distributed along the long axis of the complex. The northern of these has associated zones of serpentine pegmatoid. The central of the three however encloses an inwardly zoned pipe like development of foskorite (olivine/serpentine-magnetite-apatite-calcite rock), banded carbonatite and transgressive carbonatite. This carbonatite bearing pipe is the main host to the Cu mineralisation.

The outer margin of the foskorite is interleaved with pyroxenite in a series of concentric septa. The foskorite is similarly interleaved with the banded carbonatite on its inner margin, although in detail the interband contacts range from sharp to gradational. The elliptical-concentric fabric of the foskorite and banded carbonatite is cut at a sharp angle by the transgressive carbonatite masses.

Both phases of carbonatite, and the foskorite, contain abundant magnetite, whereas the pyroxenite is essentially free of magnetite. The foskorite has around 50% magnetite, while the carbonatites together average 27%. Copper occurs in the foskorite and both phases of the carbonatite, but is best developed within the transgressive carbonatite.

Two stages of magnetite and copper mineralisation are observed at Palabora. The first involves the main magnetite (weak copper) phase, with a high Ti (~4%) magnetite, interpreted to be orthomagmatic within the alkaline complex and early carbonatite. The second hydrothermal phase, associated with the late transgressive carbonatite dykes, introduced the bulk of the copper mineralisation with lesser, but Ti-poor (<0.1%) magnetite.

Bornite is the principal sulphide in both the foskorite and banded carbonatite, with some chalcocite in the foskorite. The main ore and highest Cu grades however are in the transgressive carbonatite where chalcopyrite predominates as stringers and veinlets, with lesser bornite and minor cubanite. Both chalcopyrite and bornite replace magnetite. Due to the large scale of mining and treatment, the low grade uranium (approx 30 ppm), PGEs, Au and Ag may be retrieved from the slime tailings.

Copper had been produced from the Palabora area as early as the 8th century, CE. Modern mining commenced in the Palabora open pit in 1965, which was completed in 2002. The final pit dimensions were 800 m deep and 1650 to 1900 m in diameter. An exploration shaft was sunk in 1996 to allow resource drilling for an underground operation. Lift I, an underground block cave 420 m below the base of the open pit and 1200 m below surface, was commenced in 2001. This lift broke through into the open pit in 2004. Production has continued at ~45 000 t of Cu per annum. Construction of a new shaft and additional declines to service Lift II, 400 m below Lift I and 1630 m below surface, was commenced in 2013, with formal approval for the new lift in 2014. Lift I resources were scheduled to be exhausted in 2022.

The total original open pit + underground resource at Palabora has been quoted at 1200 Mt @ 0.59% Cu.
The underground reserve, prior to the block cave commencing in 2003 was 245 Mt @ 0.7% Cu.
The mine is the worlds largest vermiculite supplier, producing 165 Kt in 2011, and also markets the stockpiled magnetite from the earlier part of its operation and currently mined magnetite.

Total reserves and resources (including both underground and stockpiles) at the end of 2011 (Rio Tinto, 2012) were:
    Underground copper reserves (probable) - 35 Mt @ 0.54 % Cu,
    Underground copper resources (Indicated) - 136 Mt @ 0.65% Cu
NOTE: Resources are additional to reserves.

    Underground magnetite reserves (probable) - 9.6 Mt @ 55.1 % Fe,
    Stockpiled magnetite resources (indicated + inferred) - 219.07 Mt @ 55.32% Fe,
    Underground magnetite resources (Inferred) - 21.89 Mt @ 55.12% Fe.

The mine was operated by Palabora Mining Co Ltd, owned by Rio Tinto (46.5%) and Anglo American (28.9%) until July 2013. The operating company was sold and its name changed to Palabora Copper (Pty) Limited under new shareholders Palabora Mining Company (PMC - 74%) and Empowerment Partners (26%). PMC is owned by HBIS Group, a Chinese iron and steel manufacturing conglomerate, whilst Empowerment Partners is owned by the South African government through the Industrial Development Corporation, Black Empowerment Consortium and Palabora Mining Company’s employees and local communities.

The most recent source geological information used to prepare this decription was dated: 2001.    
This description is a summary from published sources, the chief of which are listed below.
© Copyright Porter GeoConsultancy Pty Ltd.   Unauthorised copying, reproduction, storage or dissemination prohibited.

Phalaborwa (Palabora)

  References & Additional Information
   Selected References:
Fourie P J, de Jager D H  1986 - Phosphate in the Phalabowra Complex: in Anhaeusser C R, Maske S, (eds),  Mineral Deposits of Southern Africa Geol. Soc. of South Africa, Johannesburg   v2 pp 2239-2253
Giebel, R.J., Marks, M.A.W., Gauert, C.D.K. and Markl, G.,  2019 - A model for the formation of carbonatite-phoscorite assemblages based on the compositional variations of mica and apatite from the Palabora Carbonatite Complex, South Africa: in    Lithos   v.324-325, pp. 89-104.
Groves D I and Vielreicher N M  2001 - The Phalabowra (Palabora) carbonatite-hosted magnetite-copper sulfide deposit, South Africa: an end-member of the iron-oxide copper-gold-rare earth element deposit group?: in    Mineralium Deposita   v36 pp 189-194
Harmer R E  2000 - Mineralisation of the Phalaborwa Complex and the Carbonatite Connection in Iron Oxide Cu-Au-U-REE Deposits: in Porter TM (Ed.),  Hydrotherml Iron Oxide Copper-Gold & Related Deposits: A Global Perspective PGC Publishing, Adelaide   v1 pp 331-340
Le Bras, L.Y., Bolhar, R., Bybee, G.M., Nex, P.A.M., Guy, B.M., Moyana, T. and Lourens, P.,  2021 - Platinum-group and trace elements in Cu-sulfides from the Loolekop pipe, Phalaborwa: implications for ore-forming processes: in    Mineralium Deposita   v.56 pp. 161-177.
Milani, L., Bolhar, R., Cawthorn, R.G. and Frei, D.,  2017 - In situ LA-ICP-MS and EPMA trace element characterization of Fe-Ti oxides from the phoscorite-carbonatite association at Phalaborwa, South Africa: in    Mineralium Deposita   v.52, pp. 747-768.
Milani, L., Bolhar, R., Frei, D., Harlov, D.E. and Samuel, V.O.,  2017 - Light rare earth element systematics as a tool for investigating the petrogenesis of phoscorite-carbonatite associations, as exemplified by the Phalaborwa Complex, South Africa: in    Mineralium Deposita   v.52, pp. 1105-1125.
Palabora Mining Co Ltd Mine Geological & Mineralogical Staff  1976 - The geology and the economic deposits of copper, iron and vermiculite in the Palabora Igneous Complex: A brief review: in    Econ. Geol.   v71 pp 177-192
Vielreicher N M, Groves D I and Vielreicher R M,  2000 - The Phalaborwa (Palabora) Deposit and its Potential Connection to Iron-Oxide Copper-Gold Deposits of Olympic Dam Type: in Porter T M (Ed), 2000 Hydrothermal Iron Oxide Copper-Gold & Related Deposits: A Global Perspective PGC Publishing, Adelaide   v.1 pp. 321-329

Porter GeoConsultancy Pty Ltd (PorterGeo) provides access to this database at no charge.   It is largely based on scientific papers and reports in the public domain, and was current when the sources consulted were published.   While PorterGeo endeavour to ensure the information was accurate at the time of compilation and subsequent updating, PorterGeo, its employees and servants:   i). do not warrant, or make any representation regarding the use, or results of the use of the information contained herein as to its correctness, accuracy, currency, or otherwise; and   ii). expressly disclaim all liability or responsibility to any person using the information or conclusions contained herein.

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