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Vein graphite is known by various names including crystalline vein, Plumbago, Sri Lankan graphite and Ceylon graphite. The names "Sri Lanka" and "Ceylon" are often used for vein graphite, as the island nation of Sri Lanka (formally known as Ceylon) is the only region where the material is produced in commercial quantities. Significant mining and export of Ceylon graphite began around 1824, but the unusual deposits in Ceylon have been known and apparently used locally since the mid-20th century.
Of all the natural graphite materials, vein graphite is probably the most difficult to describe geologically, and various theories have been put forward as to its origin. As the name implies, vein graphite is a true vein mineral rather than a laminated mineral (amorphous graphite) or a mineral scattered throughout the ore rock (e.g. flake graphite). Seam minerals have a number of unique characteristics, including that they are non-contemporaneous with the surrounding rock, steeply dipping (vein orientation) and filled with a large number of minerals, particularly of hydrothermal origin.
Veined graphite is not confined to Sri Lanka. Many places are known, including the famous Borrowdale in Cumberland, England, where the first 'pencils' were carved out of solid graphite veins. Dillon Montana, USA, is another place where relatively thick graphite vein fillings have been found. The authors have even observed pegmatite vein fracture fillings in northwestern New Jersey, USA. However, all currently available commercial vein graphite is mined in Sri Lanka.
The first photograph below is of a vein graphite specimen from the Borrowdale deposit in the UK. The second photo below is a vein graphite specimen from Sri Lanka.
Vein graphite is unique in that it is considered to be a naturally occurring pyrolytic (deposited from a fluid phase) graphite. Vein graphite gets its name from the fact that it is found in veins and fractures in closed 'ore' rocks. This graphite is formed by the direct deposition of solid graphitic carbon by high temperature subsurface fluids called pegmatite fluids. Pegmatites form regionally or locally when large amounts of magma cool, or when some other source of 'geological energy' causes the surrounding rock to melt. Fluids from these sources are hot and aggressive at high pressures and may actually be in a state known as 'supercritical', a sub-stable fluid state that is neither liquid nor gaseous. Pegmatites represent substances distilled from heated rock because of their low solubility in the local system. If this fluid intrudes into pre-existing flake graphite deposits or other carbon-bearing rocks, the solid carbon present may be bound to the fluid as carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide or other carbon-bearing fluid phases. Carbonaceous gases may also be formed by the reaction of carbonate mineral species with magma or other energy sources. If limestone, marble or other carbonate-rich mineral species are involved, significant amounts of carbonaceous gas may be formed as a result of the release of 'crystalline carbon dioxide'.
Regardless of how the gas/fluid is produced, the carbon will be moved and transported through the fractured envelope to a location more or less remote from where the carbonaceous fluid was formed. When the equilibrium conditions are correct, solid graphitic carbon "precipitates" directly from the fluid phase to form a beautiful graphitic vein filler called vein graphite.
This type of graphite usually has a needle-like macroscopic form and a flaky microscopic form. Close examination of the fracture fillings reveals the presence of closely spaced needle-like or pin-like crystals aligned perpendicular to the vein walls. The needle-like texture is clearly visible to the naked eye, but the vein fillings are reversed and do not form well as single crystals. The accompanying photograph shows a large 6 X 6 X 10 inch piece of vein-like graphite from Sri Lanka. Note the 'top to bottom', elongated preferred orientation of this piece. When placed in the enclosure, the specimen is rotated 90o from its current position, with the top and bottom of the specimen perpendicular to the fissure wall. A close-up of the same specimen shows the needle-like structure of the adjacent vein-like graphite crystals. This vertical 'crystal wall' orientation is typical of pyrolytic carbon deposition.
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