Pyrite chemistry: A new window into Au-Te ore-forming processes in alkaline epithermal districts, Cripple Creek, Colorado

Tellurium has a wide variety of applications, most importantly in the solar energy industry and is eco-toxicologically significant; however, the magmatic-hydrothermal processes causing the pronounced Te enrichment together with Au in some epithermal districts are still poorly constrained. Hydrothermal and alkaline magmatic activity in post-subduction environments are suggested to be a critical component in the evolution of this Te-rich sub-class of low-sulfidation epithermal deposits. Cripple Creek represents an example for a world-class low-sulfidation epithermal Au-Te anomaly in the continental crust. This area represents a natural laboratory to investigate the processes of ore-formation and Au-Te enrichment in alkaline igneous rock-hosted epithermal systems.
Here, we present the first micro-analytical approach that combines petrographic observations with in situ LA-ICP-MS analyses and trace element mapping to define the key ore-forming processes of Au and Te in the Cripple Creek epithermal complex. Two main styles of mineralization can be distinguished: (1) low-grade Au disseminated pyrite-rich ores in the permeable brecciated host rocks and (2) high-grade quartz-fluorite veins rich in calaverite (AuTe2), coloradoite (HgTe), petzite (Ag3AuTe2), altaite (PbTe) and native Au.
Pyrite trace element mapping revealed distinct variations and decoupling of elements (Au-Te) and element pairs (Au-As vs. Co-Ni) within and between different sites in the epithermal district. This is reflected by the concentric/growth zoning of these elements in pyrite that were interpreted to be caused by fluid boiling associated with the deposition of the low-grade disseminated host rock ores at temperatures between 220 and 350 °C leading to the precipitation of Au, As, Co and Ni from the liquid phase and the preferential partitioning of Te into the vapor phase. The subsequent condensation of the Te-rich vapors in metal-bearing meteoric waters led to the Te precipitation being decoupled from Au in the low-grade ores.
The high-grade Au-Te mineralization was likely initiated by the influx of magmatically derived oxidized fluids. Subsequently, fluid temperatures dropped due to mixing with meteoric waters resulting in fluid boiling under low pressure conditions at shallower crustal levels (<1000 m) compared to the low-grade ores. Elevated fO2 minimized the loss of Te to the vapor phase and the strong boiling conditions at lower fluid temperatures (105–200 °C) caused the contemporaneous precipitation of Au and Te in the high-grade veins.