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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Critical Elements and Metal Deposits


The UK and global ambition to build a greener sustainable economy requires an increased supply of critical elements that are vital to the production and use of non-carbon emitting power sources. These elements include cobalt and lithium for use in batteries and rare earth elements (REE) for production of light weight powerful magnets. Future projections suggest that the presently exploited sources of these critical elements may not be sufficient to meet increased global demand, or that the available sources are in geopolitically sensitive areas.  We are therefore involved in several projects that are seeking new sources of these vitally important elements.

Image: Rare Earth Element permanent magnets are used in the generators of wind turbines and electric motors. REE deposits are therefore key for the green energy transition. 

Wind Turbines

Key Questions:

1. What tectonic settings are most likely to host these resources? - For example, are lithium resources linked to a particular period in continental-collision orogenic events (e.g. Palmer et al., 2019)?

2. Within these tectonic settings, what are the key geologic processes that result in concentrated resources? - For example, how does the interplay between magmatic and hydrothermal processes impact the concentration of REE in carbonatite complexes

3. What is the fundamental geodynamic and geological context required for the development of exceptionally endowed sedimentary basins and how are they best identified? - For example, what proxies can we establish in the chemical or isotopic records of alteration minerals to assess basin fertility? (e.g. Roberts & Gunn, 2014)

4. What are the fundamental mechanisms and extent of fluid-rock interaction in developing critical element deposits? - For example, can investigations of active hydrothermal systems [e.g Brothers, Volcano, Kermadec Arc; Cayman Trough] characterise rocks which have been subjected to variable alteration/fluid- rock interaction and lead to a better understanding of the mass flux of metals and metalloids either into sulphide deposits or the ocean? (e.g. Hodgkinson et al., 2014)

Fieldwork, southern Namibia
Fieldwork in Twyfelskupje carbonatite complex, southern Namibia.
Fieldwork in Turkey
Fieldwork in a sedimentary copper-cobalt bearing basin, Turkey.

How do we do it?

In the Geochemistry Group we use cutting edge analytical techniques to measure the chemical (e.g. Li, Co, REE) and isotopic composition (e.g. δ7Li, 143Nd/144Nd) of whole rock and minerals using sample dissolution and in-situ laser ablation. 

We have research council and industry funding to carry out detailed fieldwork and sampling programmes in several key global areas that have proven and potential reserves of critical elements (e.g., Namibia, Serbia, Turkey, Zambia, Argentina)

From these field studies and chemical and isotopic analyses of samples returned to the laboratory we can determine the petrological, tectonic and hydrothermal processes that were responsible for the enrichment of critical metals in existing resources.

From these results we can then build models that will aid in refining exploration targets for the critical elements that are critical for the functioning of a greener future.  

Who in the Geochemistry Group is involved?

Prof Steve Roberts; Prof Martin Palmer.

Links to other Research Themes

Evolution of plate tectonics and mantle dynamics

Fluid flow through the Earth


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