1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Laterite

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LATERITE (Lat. later, a brick), in petrology, a red or brown superficial deposit of clay or earth which gathers on the surface of rocks and has been produced by their decomposition; it is very common in tropical regions. In consistency it is generally soft and friable, but hard masses, nodules and bands often occur in it. These are usually rich in iron. The superficial layers of laterite deposits are often indurated and smooth black or dark-brown crusts occur where the clays have long been exposed to a dry atmosphere; in other cases the soft clays are full of hard nodules, and in general the laterite is perforated by tubules, sometimes with veins of different composition and appearance from the main mass. The depth of the laterite beds varies up to 30 or 40 ft., the deeper layers often being soft when the surface is hard or stony; the transition to fresh, sound rock below may be very sudden. That laterite is merely rotted crystalline rock is proved by its often preserving the structures, veins and even the outlines of the minerals of the parent mass below; the felspars and other components of granite gneiss having evidently been converted in situ into a soft argillaceous material.

Laterite occurs in practically every tropical region of the earth, and is very abundant in Ceylon, India, Burma, Central and West Africa, Central America, &c. It is especially well developed where the underlying rock is crystalline and felspathic (as granite gneiss, syenite and diorite), but occurs also on basalts in the Deccan and in other places, and is found even on mica schist, sandstone and quartzite, though in such cases it tends to be more sandy than argillaceous. Many varieties have been recognized. In India a calcareous laterite with large concretionary blocks of carbonate of lime is called kankar (kunkar), and has been much used in building bridges, &c., because it serves as a hydraulic cement. In some districts (e.g. W. Indies) similar types of laterite have been called “ puzzuolana ” and are also used as mortar and cement. Kankar is also known and worked in British East Africa. The clay called cabook in Ceylon is essentially a variety of laterite. Common laterite contains very little lime, and it seems that in districts which have an excessive rainfall that component may be dissolved out by percolating water, while kankar, or calcareouslaterite, is formed in districts which have a smaller rainfall. In India also a distinction is made between “ high-level ” and “ low-level ” laterites. The former are found at all elevations up to 5000 ft. and more, and are the products of the decomposition of rock in situ; they are often fine-grained and sometimes have a very well-marked concretionary structure. These laterites are subject to removal by running water, and are thus carried to lower grounds forming transported or “ low-level ” laterites. The finer particles tend to be carried away into the rivers, while the sand is left behind and with it much of the heavy iron oxides. In such situations the laterites are sandy and ferruginous, with a smaller proportion of clay, and are not intimately connected with the rocks on which they lie. On steep slopes laterite also may creep or slip when soaked with rain, and if exposed in sections on roadsides or river banks has a bedded appearance, the stratification being parallel to the surface of the ground.

Chemical and microscopical investigations show that laterite is not a clay like those which are so familiar in temperate regions; it does not consist of hydrous silicate of alumina, but is a mechanical mixture of fine grains of quartz with minute scales of hydrates of alumina. The latter are easily soluble in acid while clay is not, and after treating laterite with acids the alumina and iron leave the silica as a residue in the form of quartz. The alumina seems to be combined with variable proportions of water, probably as the minerals hydrargillite, diaspore and gibbsite, while the iron occurs as goethite, turgite, limonite, haematite. As already remarked, there is a tendency for the superficial layers to become hard, probably by a loss of the water contained in these aluminous minerals. These chemical changes may be the cause of the frequent concretionary structure and veining in the laterite. The great abundance of alumina in some varieties of laterite is a consequence of the removal of the fine particles of gibbsite, &c., from the quartz by the action of gentle currents of water. We may also point out the essential chemical similarity between laterite and the seams of bauxite which occur, for example, in the north of Ireland as reddish clays between flows of Tertiary basalt. The bauxite is rich in alumina combined with water, and is used as an ore of aluminium. It is often very ferruginous. Similar deposits occur at Vogelsberg in Germany, and we may infer that the bauxite beds are layers of laterite produced by sub-aerial decomposition in the same manner as the thick laterite deposits which are now in course of formation in the plateau basalts of the Deccan in India.

The conditions under which laterite are formed include, first, a high seasonal temperature, for it occurs only in tropical districts and in plains or mountains up to about 5000 ft. in height; secondly, a heavy rainfall, with well-marked alternation of wet and dry seasons (in arid countries laterite is seldom seen, and where the rainfall is moderate the laterite is often calcareous); third, the presence of rocks containing aluminous minerals such as felspar, augite, hornblende and mica. On pure limestones such as coral rocks and on quartzites laterite deposits do not originate except where the material has been transported.

Many hypotheses have been advanced to account for the essential difference between lateritization and the weathering processes exhibited by rocks in temperate and arctic climates. In the tropics the rank growth of vegetation produces large amounts of humus and carbonic acid which greatly promote rock decomposition; igneous and crystalline rocks of all kinds are deeply covered under rich dark soils, so that in tropical forests the underlying rocks are rarely to be seen. In the warm soil nitrification proceeds rapidly and bacteria of many kinds flourish. It has also been argued that the frequent thunderstorms produce much nitric acid in the atmosphere and that this may be a cause of lateritization, but it is certainly not a necessary factor, as beds of laterite occur in oceanic islands lying in regions of the ocean where lightning is rarely seen. Sir Thomas Holland has brought forward the suggestion that the development of laterite may depend on the presence in the soil of bacteria which are able to decompose silicate of alumina into quartz and hydrates of alumina. The restricted distribution of laterite deposits might then be due to the inhibiting effect of low temperatures on the reproduction of these organisms. This very ingenious hypothesis has not yet received the experimental confirmation which seems necessary before it can be regarded as established. Malcolm Maclaren, rejecting the bacterial theory, directs special attention to the alternate saturation of the soil with rain water in the wet season and desiccation in the subsequent drought. The laterite beds are porous, in fact they are traversed by innumerable tubules which are often lined with deposits of iron oxide and aluminous minerals. We may be certain that, as in all soils during dry weather, there is an ascent of water by capillary action towards the surface, where it is gradually dissipated by evaporation. The soil water brings with it mineral matter in solution, which is deposited in the upper part of the beds. If the alumina be at one time in a soluble condition it will be drawn upwards and concentrated near the surface. This process explains many peculiarities of late rites, such as their porous and slaggy structure, which is often so marked that they have been mistaken for slaggy volcanic rocks. The concretionary structure is undoubtedly due to chemical rearrangements, among which the escape of water is probably one of the most important; and many writers have recognized that the hard ferruginous crust, like the induration which many soft late rites undergo when dug up and exposed to the air, is the result of desiccation and exposure to the hot sun of tropical countries. The brecciated structure which many late rites show may be produced by great expansion of the mass consequent on absorption of water after heavy rains, followed by contraction during the subsequent dry season.

Laterites are not of much economic use. They usually form a poor soil, full of hard concretionary lumps and very infertile because the potash and phosphates have been removed in solution, while only alumina, iron and silica are left behind. They are used as clays for puddling, for making tiles, and as a mortar in rough work. Kankar has filled an important part as a cement in many large engineering works in India. Where the iron concretions have been washed out by rains or by artificial treatment (often in the form of small shotlike pellets) they serve as an iron ore in parts of India and Africa. Attempts are being made to utilize laterite as an ore of aluminium, a purpose for which some varieties seem well adapted. There are also deposits of manganese associated with some laterites in India which may ultimately be valuable as mineral ores.  (J. S. F.)