Komatiites are a remarkable class of ultramafic (very magnesium-rich) lavas which are, with very few exceptions, restricted to the first half of the earth's history. A remarkable global outpouring of komatiites occurred around 2700 million years ago, and komatiites of this age host a significant proportion of the world's sulfide nickel resources.
Komatiites were exeptionally hot. The most extreme examples probably erupted at temperatures in excess of 1600 degrees C. At this temperature, the lavas would have been extremely fluid, with viscosities approaching that of water. However, our research leads us to believe that they were erupted by much the same mechanisms that govern modern basalt lava flows.
Nickel sulfide deposits in komatiites occur largely within linear, olivine-choked lava pathways which may originally have formed as lava tubes, within regionally extensive flow fields (see diagram below). The origin of these deposits remains controversial, but several lines of evidence strongly favour a hypothesis referred to variously as "ground melting", "thermal erosion" or "substrate erosion". According to this hypothesis, komatiite lavas melted and eroded the ground they flowed over, causing the lavas to become contaminated by this molten substrate. Where the substrate contained high proportions of sulfur, this caused an immiscible suflide melt to form, in the same way a molten sulfide matte forms in a blast furnace, with the komatiite lava being analogous to the slag. The immiscible sulfide melt scavenged Ni, Cu and platinum group metals from the silicate melt, forming an "ore magma". Orebodies formed where this ore magma pooled and froze at the floor of the flowing lava. The erosion process, and the accumulation of sulfide ores, are restricted to the major flow pathways within the lava flow lobe, as illustrated
Figure 1. Schematic diagram illustrating the genesis of sulphide ores in komatiite lava-flows.
The Ni-Cu-PGE Group (formerly known as the Magmatic Ore Deposits Group) has carried out an extended program of research on the characteristics and origin of these deposits, which include some of the world's most important Ni resources (see below). Our main lines of enquiry have been:
The volcanology of komatiites - how were they erupted, and under what conditions could they erode their substrates? Can this knowledge be used to guide exploration in metamorphosed and deformed terrains?
Lithogeochemical indicators - can chemical indicators of mineralising processes be detected in komatiite suites, and if so, can they be used to prioritise exploration targets?