The Merensky Reef is a layer of igneous rock in the Bushveld Igneous Complex (BIC) in the North West, Limpopo, Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa which together with an underlying layer, the Upper Group 2 Reef (UG2), contains most of the world's known reserves of platinum group metals (PGMs) or platinum group elements (PGEs)—platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium. The Reef is 46 cm thick and bounded by thin chromite seams or stringers. The composition consists predominantly of cumulate rocks, including leuconorite, anorthosite, chromitite, and melanorite.
The UG2 Reef, the composition of which is relatively consistent throughout the BIC, is rich in chromite. However, the UG2 Reef lacks the Merensky's gold, copper and nickel by-products, though its reserves may be almost twice those of the Merensky Reef. Overall, the Merensky Reef is observed to be a lower layer composed of anorthosite or norite with a thin layer of chromitite over top. In addition, there is commonly a layer overlying both composed of feldspathic pyroxenite. Chromitite layers occur commonly in large mafic layered intrusions. A current theory suggests chromitites form as a result of introduction and mixing of chemically primitive magma with a more evolved magma, which results in supersaturation of chromite in the mixture and the formation of a nearly monomineralic layer on the magma chamber floor. The leading theory regarding the formation of the Merensky reef is that of crystals originating from a main magma source accumulated and cooled as the magma rose resulting in crystallization. Yet the nature of crystallization is complex.
The Merensky Reef is constructed by 5 different layers. The first layer is mottled anorthosite which is pyroxene oikocrysts and is described as dark colored bands. The mottled anorthosite is composed of traces of quartz, titanite and apatite minerals. The second layer is Merensky chromitites which are highly irregular grains of basal chromitite. The third layer is similar to the second layer with Merensky chromitites, however the basal chromitite is compact and smaller in size. The fourth layer is Merensky pegmatite and is composed of coarse-grained silicate with an approximate thickness of 2.6 cm thick. In the fourth layer, chromite is sparse and sulfides are present. The fifth layer is Merensky melanorite and is a fine-grained chalcopyrite, quartz and feldspar rich matrix.
The Merensky Reef has a high concentration of chromitites. However, the chromitites differ from one another in their levels of iridium, ruthenium, rhodium and platinum present. There is reported trace element enrichment shown by arsenic, cadmium, tin and tellurium. The Merensky Reef is similar to the Platreef because of the presence of primitive mantle, layered intrusions and levels of nickel and copper. The Merensky-type reef has been separated into two categories, the orthomagmatic and the hydromagmatic. The orthomagmatic group is composed of platinum group element mineralization. The hydromagmatic group is composed of platinum group element mineralization to volatile-rich fluids separating from a solid cumulate pile.
There are several theories that suggest how the crystallization on the Merensky Reef occurred. The first accepted hypothesis of the Merensky Reef suggests the chromite crystallization originated from hybrid melts and significant lateral mixing of new and resident magma. In detail, the first hypothesis suggests the high of PGE concentrations were a result from the sulfide and silicate melt. The sulfide melt plays an important role in this hypothesis because the sulfide melt is dense and the settling of the melt through the magma column to the floor of the chamber allowed such mixing to occur. One theory suggests the chromite crystallization originated from hybrid melts and lateral mixing. There is another theory that suggests the crystallization originated from chromite and sulfide droplets. However, there is another theory the crystallization originated from emplaced magma merging with roof-rock melts. In detail of the theory of roof-rock melts, there was contaminated between the new magma and silica-rich resident melt. The contaminated resulted in chromite and PGM crystallization because the chromite grains attracted the PGM crystals. After crystallization, the crystals were carried in the collapsing margins and formed the layers of chromitite and PGE.
The Bushveld Complex chromitites were first detected by Hall and Humphrey. The initial recovery of platinum in South Africa took place on several of the large East Rand gold mines and the first separate platinum mine was a short lived venture near Naboomspruit that worked very patchy quartz reefs. The discovery of the Bushveld Igneous Complex deposits was made in 1924 by a Lydenburg district farmer, A F Lombaard. It was recorded to be approximately 80 kilometers in length. This was an alluvial deposit but its importance was recognized by Hans Merensky whose prospecting work discovered the primary source in the Bushveld Igneous Complex and traced it for several hundred kilometres by 1930. Extensive mining of the Reef didn't take place until an upsurge in the demand for platinum group metals used in exhaust pollution control in the 1950s, made exploitation economically feasible. Extraction of metals from the UG2 chromitite could only take place in the 1970s with major advances in metallurgy. The first mine concentrated on the extraction of chrome-rich UG2 platinum on the reef and was named the Lonmin mine.
- Barnes, Sarah-Jane (January 2002). "Platinum-group Elements and Microstructures of Normal Merensky Reef from Impala Platinum Mines, Bushveld Complex". Journal of Petrology. 43 (1): Pages 103–128. doi:10.1093/petrology/43.1.103.
- [Geology for South African Students. CNA Ltd South Africa]
- Cawthorn, R.Grant; Boerst, Kevin (March 2006). "Origin of the Pegmatitic Pyroxenite in the Merensky Unit, Bushveld Complex, South Africa". Journal of Petrology. 47 (8): 1509–1530. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.560.4971. doi:10.1093/petrology/egl017 – via Oxford Academic.
- Mathez, E,A. (1995). MagmaUc metasomaUsm and formation of the Merensky reef, Bushveld Complex. Contrib Mineral Petrol 119, 277-286.
- Hutchinson, Dave; Foster, Jeffery (January 2015). "Concentration of particulate platinum-group minerals during magma emplacement; a case study from the Merensky Reef, Bushveld Complex". Journal of Petrology. 56: Pages 113–159. doi:10.1093/petrology/egu073.
- Latypov, Rais; Chistyakova, Sofya; Page, Alan; Hornsey, Richard (July 2015). "Field Evidence for the In Situ Crystallization of the Merensky Reef" (PDF). Journal of Petrology. 56 (12): 2341–2372. doi:10.1093/petrology/egv023.
- Scoon, Roger (August 1994). "Platinum-group element mineralization in the critical zone of the western Bushveld Complex: I. Sulfide poor-chromitites". Economic Geology. 89 (5): 1094–1121. doi:10.2113/gsecongeo.89.5.1094.
- Naldrett, Anthony (January 2011). "Genesis of the PGE-Enriched Merensky Reef and Chromitite Seams of the Bushveld Complex". Magmatic Ni-Cu and PGE Deposits: Geology, Geochemistry, and Genesis.
- Kinnaird, J.A (July 2012). "Chromitite formation—a key to understanding processes of platinum enrichment". Applied Earth Science. 111: 23–35. doi:10.1179/aes.2002.111.1.23.
- Platinum Group Metal Mines In South Africa 2007, S A Dept of Minerals and energy Archived 2009-03-19 at the Wayback Machine
- Jones, R. Michael (March 2005). "History of Platinum Mining in the Bushveld Complex". wikinvest. Archived from the original on April 2, 2018. Retrieved April 2, 2018.