What is Quartzite?Quartzite is a nonfoliated metamorphic rock that formed by the metamorphism of pure quartz sandstone. The intense heat and pressure of metamorphism causes the quartz grains to compact and become tightly intergrown with each other, resulting in very hard and dense quartzite. The name quartzite implies not only a high degree of induration (hardness), but also a high quartz content. Quartzite generally comprises greater than 90% percent quartz, and some examples, containing up to 99% quartz, and are the largest and purest concentrations of silica in the Earth's crust. Although a quartz-rich sandstone can look similar to quartzite, a fresh broken surface of quartzite will show breakage across quartz grains, whereas the sandstone will break around quartz grains. Quartzite also tends to have a sugary appearance and glassy lustre.
When sandstone is cemented to quartzite, the individual quartz grains recrystallise along with the former cementing material to form an interlocking mosaic of quartz crystals. Most or all of the original texture and sedimentary structures of the sandstone are erased by the metamorphism. The grainy, sandpaper-like surface becomes glassy in appearance. Minor amounts of former cementing materials, iron oxide, silica, carbonate and clay, often migrate during crystallisation and metamorphosis. This causes streaks and lenses to form within the quartzite.
Orthoquartzite is a very pure quartz sandstone composed of usually well-rounded quartz grains cemented by silica. Orthoquartzite is often 99% SiO2 with only very minor amounts of iron oxide and trace resistant minerals such as zircon, rutile and magnetite. Although few fossils are normally present, the original texture and sedimentary structures are preserved.
The term is also traditionally used for quartz-cemented quartz arenites, and both usages are found in the literature. The typical distinction between the two (since each is a gradation into the other) is a metamorphic quartzite is so highly cemented, diagenetically altered, and metamorphosized so that it will fracture and break across grain boundaries, not around them.
Quartzite is very resistant to chemical weathering and often forms ridges and resistant hilltops. The nearly pure silica content of the rock provides little for soil; therefore, the quartzite ridges are often bare or covered only with a very thin layer of soil and (if any) little vegetation.
In the United States, formations of quartzite can be found in some parts of Pennsylvania, eastern South Dakota, Central Texas, southwest Minnesota, Devil's Lake State Park in the Baraboo Range in Wisconsin, the Wasatch Range in Utah, near Salt Lake City, Utah and as resistant ridges in the Appalachians and other mountain regions. Quartzite is also found in the Morenci Copper Mine in Arizona. The town of Quartzsite in western Arizona derives its name from the quartzites in the nearby mountains in both Arizona and Southeastern California. A glassy vitreous quartzite has been described from the Belt Supergroup in the Coeur d’Alene district of northern Idaho.
In the United Kingdom, a craggy ridge of quartzite called the Stiperstones (early Ordovician – Arenig Epoch, 500 Ma) runs parallel with the Pontesford-Linley fault, 6 km north-west of the Long Mynd in south Shropshire. Also to be found in England are the Cambrian "Wrekin quartzite" (in Shropshire), and the Cambrian "Hartshill quartzite" (Nuneaton area). In Wales, Holyhead mountain and most of Holy island off Anglesey sport excellent Precambrian quartzite crags and cliffs. In the Scottish Highlands, several mountains (e.g. Foinaven, Arkle) composed of Cambrian quartzite can be found in the far north-west Moine Thrust Belt running in a narrow band from Loch Eriboll in a south-westerly direction to Skye. In Ireland areas of quartzite are found across the northwest, with Mount Errigal in Donegal as the most prominent outcrop.
In Canada, the La Cloche Mountains in Ontario are composed primarily of white quartzite. The highest mountain in Mozambique, Monte Binga (2436 m), as well as the rest of the surrounding Chimanimani Plateau are composed of very hard, pale grey, precambrian quartzite. Quartzite is also mined in Brazil for use in kitchen countertops.
Physical Properties of Quartzite
Quartzite is usually white to gray in color. Some rock units that are stained by iron can be pink, red, or purple. Other impurities can cause quartzite to be yellow, orange, brown, green, or blue.
The quartz content of quartzite gives it a hardness of about seven on the Mohs Hardness Scale. Its extreme toughness made it a favourite rock for use as an impact tool by early people. Its conchoidal fracture allowed it to be shaped into large cutting tools such as ax heads and scrapers. Its coarse texture made it less suitable for producing tools with fine edges such as knife blades and projectile points.
Where Does Quartzite Form?
Most quartzite forms during mountain-building events at convergent plate boundaries. There, sandstone is metamorphosed into quartzite while deeply buried. Compressional forces at the plate boundary fold and fault the rocks and thicken the crust into a mountain range. Quartzite is an important rock type in folded mountain ranges throughout the world.
Quartzite as a Ridge-Former
Quartzite is one of the most physically durable and chemically resistant rocks found at Earth's surface. When the mountain ranges are worn down by weathering and erosion, less-resistant and less-durable rocks are destroyed, but the quartzite remains. This is why quartzite is so often the rock found at the crests of mountain ranges and covering their flanks as a litter of scree.
Quartzite is also a poor soil-former. Unlike feldspars which break down to form clay minerals, the weathering debris of quartzite is quartz. It is therefore not a rock type that contributes well to soil formation. For that reason it is often found as exposed bedrock with little or no soil cover.
How the Name "Quartzite" Is Used
Geologists have used the name "quartzite" in a few different ways, each with a slightly different meaning. Today most geologists who use the word "quartzite" are referring to rocks that they believe are metamorphic and composed almost entirely of quartz.
A few geologists use the word "quartzite" for sedimentary rocks that have an exceptionally high quartz content. This usage is falling out of favor but remains in older textbooks and other older publications. The name "quartz arenite" is a more appropriate and less confusing name for these rocks.
It is often difficult or impossible to differentiate quartz arenite from quartzite. The transition of sandstone into quartzite is a gradual process. A single rock unit such as the Tuscarora Sandstone might fully fit the definition of quartzite in some parts of its extent and be better called "sandstone" in other areas. Between these areas, the names "quartzite" and "sandstone" are used inconsistently and often guided by habit. It is often called "quartzite" when rock units above and below it are clearly sedimentary. This contributes to the inconsistency in the ways that geologists use the word "quartzite."
Uses of Quartzite
Because of its hardness and angular shape, crushed quartzite is often used as railway ballast.Quartzite is a decorative stone and may be used to cover walls, as roofing tiles, as flooring, and stairsteps. Its use for countertops in kitchens is expanding rapidly. It is harder and more resistant to stains than granite.Crushed quartzite is sometimes used in road construction. High purity quartzite is used to produce ferrosilicon, industrial silica sand, silicon and silicon carbide. During the Paleolithic quartzite was used, in addition to flint, quartz, and other lithic raw materials, for making stone tools.