Nickel-cobalt (Ni-Co) laterite deposits are supergene enrichments of Ni±Co that form from intense chemical and mechanical weathering of ultramafic parent rocks. These regolith deposits typically form within 26 degrees of the equator, although there are a few exceptions. They form in active continental margins and stable cratonic settings. It takes as little as one million years for a laterite profile to develop. Three subtypes of Ni-Co laterite deposits are classified according to the dominant Ni-bearing mineralogy, which include hydrous magnesium (Mg)-silicate, smectite, and oxide. These minerals form in weathering horizons that begin with the unweathered protolith at the base, saprolite next, a smectite transition zone only in profiles where drainage is very poor, followed by limonite, and then capped with ferricrete at the top. The saprolite contains Ni-rich hydrous Mg-silicates, the Ni-rich clays occur in the transition horizon, and Ni-rich goethite occurs in the limonite. Although these subtypes of deposits are the more widely used terms for classification of Ni-Co laterite deposits, most deposits have economic concentrations of Ni in more than one horizon. Because of their complex mineralogy and heterogeneous concentrations, mining of these metallurgically complex deposits can be challenging. Deposits range in size from 2.5 to about 400 million tonnes, with Ni and Co grades of 0.66–2.4 percent (median 1.3) and 0.01–0.15 percent (median 0.08), respectively. Modern techniques of ore delineation and mineralogical identification are being developed to aid in streamlining the Ni-Co laterite mining process, and low-temperature and low-pressure ore processing techniques are being tested that will treat the entire weathered profile. There is evidence that the production of Ni and Co from laterites is more energy intensive than that of sulfide ores, reflecting the environmental impact of producing a Ni-Co laterite deposit. Tailings may include high levels of magnesium, sulfate, and manganese and have the potential to be physically unstable.
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
Nickel-cobalt laterites: a deposit model: Chapter H in Mineral deposit models for resource assessment
Scientific Investigations Report
U.S. Geological Survey
Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center