Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete

Materiales de Construcción
Vol. 64, Issue 316, October–December 2014, e038
ISSN-L: 0465-2746
Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete
I. Oliveira, S.H.P. Cavalaro *, A. Aguado
Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña, BarcelonaTech, (Barcelona, Spain)
*[email protected]
Received 25 September 2013
Accepted 7 November 2013
Available on line 17 November 2014
ABSTRACT: Rocks containing pyrrhotite bands are sometimes used to produce concrete. These rocks oxidize
and produce long-term expansive reactions that damage concrete structures, leading to important economic
and risk related repercussions. The present study analyses several aspects that affect the oxidation process of the
aggregate such as the existence of preferential paths for the entrance of the oxidizing agent and the conversion
process of the chemical elements involved in the reaction. For that, host rock samples containing pyrrhotite were
investigated by scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive spectroscopy. The results shows that the pyrrhotite appears in bands that create planes of weakness and present cracks that serve as preferential paths for the
entrance of oxygen. Furthermore, a new representation is proposed for the oxidation process.
KEYWORDS: Iron sulfide; Oxidation; Aggregate; Internal sulfate attack; Dam
Citation / Citar como: Oliveira, I.; Cavalaro, S.H.P.; Aguado, A. (2014) Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates
for concrete. Mater. Construcc. 64 [316], e038 http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413.
RESUMEN: Evolución de la oxidación de la pirrotina presente en áridos para hormigón. Rocas con bandas de pirrotina han sido usadas para producir áridos destinados a la fabricación de hormigones. Las mismas son susceptible a un fenómeno de oxidación que a largo plazo produce la degradación del material, llevando a importantes
repercusiones económica y en cuanto a la seguridad. El presente estudio evalúa la influencia de diferentes aspectos que pueden afectar dicho proceso de oxidación del agregado, tales como la existencia de caminos preferentes
para la entrada del agente oxidante y los elementos químicos involucrados en la reacción. Para ello, muestras
de roca con pirrotina han sido analizadas mediante microscopía electrónica de barrido. Los resultados indican
que la pirrotina aparece en bandas que dan lugar a planos de debilidad y fisuración. Esas fisuras actúan como
caminos preferentes a la entrada del oxígeno. Asimismo, con base en los análisis realizados se ha propuesto una
nueva representación para el proceso de oxidación.
PALABRAS CLAVE: Sulfuro de hierro; Oxidación; Árido; Ataque sulfático interno; Presa
Copyright: © 2014 CSIC. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution-Non Commercial (by-nc) Spain 3.0 License.
Geological formations of endogenous and metamorphic host rocks with inclusions of pyrrhotite
bands may be found in Nature. In some cases, these
rocks have been used to produce aggregates that were
then incorporated in the dosage of concrete. Elements
cast with this material have shown severe cracking
caused by an expansive phenomenon known as internal sulfate attack (ISA). In such phenomenon, the particles of pyrrhotite included in the aggregates oxidize,
producing iron hydroxides and sulfates (1). The latter reacts with calcium and the aluminates from the
cement paste to form expansive secondary ettringite.
Several examples of structures affected by the
presence of this harmful material are found in the
literature. Some of these studies remark the important economic, social and risk related repercussions
of using the contaminated rocks in concrete (2–7).
Figure 1 shows the case of the downstream face and
the galleries of the Graus Dam (Spain), which shows
severe cracking and movements due to the ISA.
2 • I. Oliveira et al.
The rate and the overall repercussions of the ISA
are clearly dependent of the interaction between the
particle and the surrounding host rock that forms
the aggregate. Factors such as the pyrrhotite concentration in the host rock and the oxygen access
(oxidizing agent) may affect the oxidation process.
Therefore, the characterization of this reaction in
the host rock is a fundamental step towards understanding, modeling and properly treating the degradation observed in the concrete.
The objective of this paper is to analyze three
aspects that may affect the oxidation process of pyrrhotite particles inside the aggregate: the shape and
the integrity of the particle, the existence of preferential paths for the entrance of oxygen and the conversion process of the chemical elements involved in
the reaction. For that, host rock contaminated with
pyrrhotite particles were extracted from quarries
and used to produce samples. The latter were investigated by scanning electron microscopy and energy
dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS).
The study shows that the pyrrhotite appears in
bands that create planes of weakness in the rock.
Cracks observed in these bands serve as preferential paths for the entrance of oxygen. Furthermore,
a new representation is proposed for the pyrrhotite
oxidation process. Both observations denote a significant contribution towards the development of more
realistic models to predict the evolution of the ISA.
The oxidation process of pyrrhotite may be
caused either by the activity of microorganisms or
by the direct chemical reaction with the compounds
present in the atmosphere under favorable conditions. Even though the former is more frequent in
Nature, the latter is the focus of the present study
since it is the one usually observed in concrete
structures subjected to ISA. In this case, the access
of the oxygen (O2) and of the moisture (H2O) are
essential to initiate the reaction (9–13), as shown in
eq. [1]. Notice that the original iron content in the
pyrrhotite stoichiometry may range from 0.875 to
1.000 (15, 16). According to Schmidt et al. (14), this
pyrrhotite reacts to form first iron oxide (Fe2O3) and
then iron hydroxides (Fe(OH), Fe(OH)3) [1].
 4 − 3x 
 10 − 3x 
Fe1− xS + 
O +
 4  2  2 
× H2 O → (1 − x ) Fe ( OH )3 + SO24− + H + Eq. [1]
The evaluation of the oxidation process is often
performed through a scanning electron microscopy
with microanalysis (SEM/EDS) since the EDS can
quantify the chemical elements present in the samples analyzed. The atomic ratios obtained from this
analysis serve to assess the compound present at a
given point and time throughout the course of the
In order to facilitate the identification of the
chemical compounds involved, a graphical representation of the pyrrhotite oxidation is commonly
used. These graphs define a Cartesian system with
axis X and Y, each of them corresponding to a different atomic ratio between the contents of two
chemical elements obtained from the microanalysis.
For each analyzed portion of the sample, a pair of
atomic ratios is obtained, making it is possible to
define a point in the Cartesian system.
Depending on the point position with reference to
the axis, the chemical compound in the analyzed zone
is determined. This approach allows an easy comparison of the composition of different zones of the same
sample and outlines the path and the stage of conversion of the chemical compounds during the reaction.
To represent the iron sulfides oxidation process,
Schmidt et al. (14) used a graph relating the atomic
ratio between sulfur and iron (S/Fe) in the Y-axis
with the atomic ratio between oxygen and iron (O/Fe)
Figure 1. Detail of a) downstream face and b) crest crack at the Graus Dam (8).
Materiales de Construcción 64 (316), October–December 2014, e038. ISSN-L: 0465-2746. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413
Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete • 3
in the X-axis. It seems clear that the plot from
Figure 2a proposed by Schmidt et al. (14) reflects a
simplified evolution of pyrite and pyrrhotite oxidation reaction which is also observed during the ISA.
In this representation the author has used the results
obtained in zones of the iron sulfide particles that are
either clearly oxidized or not. As a result, there is a
concentration of points either near the Y-axis (indicating the iron sulfide after the oxidation process) or
near the X-axis (showing the oxidation products).
There are no dots indicating the conversion or the
movement between the axes. Thus, a more detailed
description of the iron sulfides oxidation conversion
requires the analysis of a greater amount of points
in the transition zone between the oxidized and the
non-oxidized iron sulfide.
Mycroft et al. (17) and Pratt et al. (18) have proposed a slightly different oxidation process (Figure 2b).
Based on a study of depth profiling with AES (Auger
Electron Spectroscopy), they determined the chemical composition profile of the pyrrhotite surface. The
authors noted that the deepest layer of the particle is
composed of unreacted pyrrhotite; the second layer
is a mixture of Fe2S3 and Fe7S8, while the next layer
is pyrrhotite with a stoichiometry approaching of
the pyrite (19). Finally, the external layer (pyrrhotite
surface) is composed of iron oxyhydroxide resulting
from the oxidation process.
To justify the profile Mycroft et al. (17) and Pratt
et al. (18) considered that the pyrrhotite oxidation
causes iron to diffuse from inside to outside the particle. This displacement of iron results in an enrichment of sulfur in the zone below and promotes the
formation of disulphide bonds and the reorganization of the pyrrhotite structure towards marcasite
(FeS2) or a disordered pyrite structure (19–22).
In order to obtain a clearer picture of the evolution and the factor affecting the pyrrhotite oxidation, an extensive set of rock samples were extracted
from the quarry located in the right abutment of
the Rumedo dam. This is a concrete dam built in
Lladorre (Spain) by 1971 with a 91 m of length and
9 m of height severely affected by the ISA.
The rocks collected from the quarry were crushed
and divided into 4 different grading ranges: 4 to
5 mm (A), 5 to 20 mm (B), 20 to 40 mm (C) and 40 to
50 mm (D). The physical properties testing showed
that the porosity and the density of the host rock
are 2.17% and 2.73 g/cm3, respectively. The chemical analysis presented in the Table. 1 indicated high
contents of iron compounds and a medium sulfur
content (SO3) equal to 1.42% that exceeds the maximum limits (minor then 1% of the total aggregate
weight) established in many codes and guidelines.
The variation in the contents of these elements does
not seem to be influenced by the grading ranges.
The rock samples for scanning electron microscopy SEM (FIE QUANTA 200) were prepared
from the host rock by cutting, grinding and polishing to give representative micro sections of the
surface. The polishing was done in several steps
by using diamond suspensions from 9 to 0.25 μm
(BUEHLER, Beta-vector). The polished samples
were then coated with carbon to get an electrically conductive surface. The microstructure of the
samples was examined by SEM using backscattered
electron imaging (BSE) and energy dispersive X-ray
spectroscopy (EDS). The chemical analysis using
EDS was performed with a Li/Si crystal detector
and an accelerating voltage of 15 kV. The pyrrhotite oxidation was studied by EDS point analysis to
determine the elements iron, sulfur and oxygen.
4.1. Pyrrhotite bands
Pyrrhotite usually appears in the host rock concentrated in bands (23, 24). These bands form debility areas that create preferential zones for the crack
appearance and grain size reduction (25). On visual
Figure 2. Pyrrhotite oxidation according to a) Schmidt et al. (14) and according to b) Mycroft et al. (17) and Pratt et al. (18).
Materiales de Construcción 64 (316), October–December 2014, e038. ISSN-L: 0465-2746. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413
4 • I. Oliveira et al.
Table 1. Chemical composition of the rocks by XRF (values in %)
A (4–5)
B (5–20)
C (20–40)
D (40–50)
s.d. (σ)
inspection performed in concrete samples extracted
from Tavàscan and Graus dams, Aguado et al. (2)
observed that aggregates with diameters between 30
and 70 mm showed pyrrhotite bands always smaller
than 1 mm of thickness. The same authors have verified in others concretes that aggregates with diameter between 80 and 120 mm have pyrrhotite bands
with thickness ranging from 0.5 to 1.0 mm.
Figure 3a shows the rocks samples extracted
from the quarry used in the construction of the
Rumedo dam. As expected, during the crushing
to produce the aggregates, it was observed that the
fracture of the host rock usually occurred at the pyrrhotite band, which characterizes the debility zone.
The intense dark brown color of the band is indicative of the goethite formation FeO(OH) - one of the
products of the pyrrhotite oxidation. This suggests
that, despite the protection provided by the surrounding rock, the band was in an advanced state
of oxidation. Figure 3b shows a BSE image of the
analyzed rock, where a pyrrhotite band with a thickness of approximately 1.3 mm is clearly observed.
A crack in the longitudinal direction parallel to
the pyrrhotite band is also identified. In addition
to forming a weakness layer in the rock, this crack
marks a preferential path for the entry of oxygen,
thus accelerating the pyrrhotite oxidation process.
This explains the overall advanced stage of oxidation of the band shown in Figure 3b.
4.2. Oxygen access in to the pyrrhotite
To identify the presence of the oxygen in the pyrrhotite bands, a total of 16 samples of the host rock
were analyzed. In each sample, two zones were identified. Zone I corresponds to the border between the
pyrrhotite band and the crack (pyrrhotite surface),
whereas zone II represent the central part of the pyrrhotite band. This work presents the microanalysis
of the two most representative aggregate samples.
The analysis of the complete set of samples may be
found in Jones et al. (19).
Figure 4 shows the mapping of the pyrrhotite
band in the aggregate with a magnitude increase of
2400X for the elements involved in the oxidation
process (iron, sulfur and oxygen).
In Figure 4b there are two clearly distinct areas:
an oxidized one, which is dominated by the presence of iron (red), and one non-oxidized, which is
dominated by the presence of sulfur (green) and
Figure 3. Host rock from Rumedo dam quarry: a) pyrrhotite band and b) BSE image.
Materiales de Construcción 64 (316), October–December 2014, e038. ISSN-L: 0465-2746. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413
Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete • 5
Figure 4. Mapping for the elements: a) BSE image, b) Fe-S, c) S-O and d) Fe-S -O.
iron (red). The combination of the colors represented by these two elements highlight the zones
with pyrrhotite, marked in yellow. In fact, in Figure
4c it is observed that the cracks are completely filled
by the oxygen, confirming the initial hypothesis that
the crack is a preferential path for the oxygen entry.
The purple areas in Figure 4d mark the oxidized zone and the direction of the oxidation front.
It may be observed that the oxygen diffusion does
not occur through the aggregate, since the pyrrhotite degradation was only noted in the border of the
pyrrhotite and the crack. In Figure 4d the oxidation front is situated at the surface of the pyrrhotite
particle. Such front moves to the center of the particle, leaving behind a complete oxidized pyrrhotite.
As the oxidation process advances, the penetration
and diffusion of the oxygen occurs through the iron
hydroxide (oxidized pyrrhotite) towards the surface
of the non-oxidized pyrrhotite.
Figure 5 shows the mapping of another sample
of the pyrrhotite band present in the host rock. In
this analysis, the same methodology presented in the
Figure 4 was adopted.
A crack that cuts the pyrrhotite band is observed
in Figure 5b. Moreover, Figure 5c shows that the
areas with purple color located around the cracks
have a high concentration of iron and oxygen. In
Figure 5d, the blue color at the border of the crack
indicates the presence of a high oxygen content,
which marks the oxidation front. Both observations
confirm that the cracks provide a preferred way
for the oxygen entry, leading to the formation of
iron oxides and hydroxides. The same patterns was
observed in the great majority of samples analyzed
in the present study.
4.3. Analysis of pyrrhotite oxidation using SEM/EDS
It is important to remark that the pyrite oxidation path of conversion is identical to the pyrrhotite,
with the difference that the degradation process usually starts with an S/Fe atomic ratio slightly higher.
This happens since S/Fe is equal to 2 for the pyrite
and between 1 and 1.25 for the pyrrhotite.
Figure 6 shows the evolution of the oxidation of
the two zones presented in Figure 4a. The points
of zone I are dispersed due to the unstable concentrations of sulfur and oxygen (characteristic of the
oxidation process). However, the points of zone II
present no signs of oxidation, being concentrated in
one region with an S/Fe atomic ratio characteristic
of the pyrrhotite.
Following the same procedure used in the analysis of the pyrrhotite previously presented, Figure 7
presents the evolution of the oxidation of the two
zones marked in Figure 5a. The graphic shows that
the points of zone II are concentrated in a region
with low oxygen content and S/Fe ratio between
Materiales de Construcción 64 (316), October–December 2014, e038. ISSN-L: 0465-2746. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413
6 • I. Oliveira et al.
Figure 5. Mapping for the elements: a) BSE image, b) Fe-S, c) Fe-O and d) O.
0.8 and 1, reflecting the presence of non-oxidized
pyrrhotite. Again, points in the zone I have higher
oxygen content and lower sulfur content, indicating
an advanced state of the pyrrhotite oxidation and
the presence of a high content of iron oxides near
the cracks.
In order to provide a general overview of the
pyrrhotite degradation process, Figure 8 shows all
the points discussed in the two samples presented in
this study as well as the results of other 14 samples
extracted from the same quarry. The figures include
the data obtained for zones I and II. Notice that
Figure 8a relates the atomic content of iron and
oxygen whereas Figure 8b relates the atomic content
of sulfur and oxygen for each point. The conversion
point of the oxidation process for the iron and for
the sulfur are clearly identified in both of them.
As may be seen, for low oxygen concentrations
(non-oxidized points) iron contents show a decreasing linear tendency. On the contrary, the sulfur content is maintained with a steady tendency, despite
its greater dispersion. This may reflect the diffusion
of iron through the particle, which reduces the content of this element with respect to the sulfur content, characterizing the conversion of the pyrrhotite
structure towards a disordered pyrite structure.
Figure 6. Oxidation process of the
pyrrhotite presented in Figure 4.
Figure 7. Oxidation process of the
pyrrhotite presented in Figure 5.
Materiales de Construcción 64 (316), October–December 2014, e038. ISSN-L: 0465-2746. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413
Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete • 7
Figure 8. Conversion points of the pyrrhotite oxidation process.
Once the Fe/O atomic ratio reaches 2.44, a significant increase in oxygen content is observed while
the iron content has a fairly constant tendency, even
though with a high scatter (see Figure 8a). Such
behavior indicates the formation of oxides and
hydroxides of iron during the oxidation process. In
the case of the sulfur (Figure 8b), once the S/O atomic
ratio equal 2.63, a considerable reduction of sulfur
content takes place simultaneously with an increase
in the oxygen content. This way, the points follow the
downward tendency shown in orange in the graph
in Figure 8b. This result suggests that the oxidation
process, release sulfates that have some mobility and
can leave the iron sulfide particles, causing the sudden
decrease appreciated in the sulfur content. Notice that
the characteristic ratios of 2.44 for the Fe/O and especially the limit of 2.63 for the S/O mark critical points
that produce an increase of the reaction kinetic and,
consequently, of the formation of expansive products
due to the release of sulfates in the cement paste.
Figure 9 presents the microanalysis results of the
16 samples taking either the iron or the oxygen as
reference for the atomic ratios. Again, critical values
of Fe/O and O/S lead to the activation and acceleration of the oxidation of pyrrhotite in the samples analyzed. This seems evident in Figure 9b that
relates the Fe/O and O/S atomic ratio in logarithmic scale. It shows that for Fe/O less than 2.44 and
S/O less than 2.63, the analyzed points are close to
the representative atomic ratios of the iron oxides
(Fe2O3) and hydroxides (FeO(OH), Fe(OH)3).
However, for values of Fe/O and O/S higher
than the limits defined, the points start the oxidation process (in green) following a decreasing linear
tendency characteristic of the conversion of a pyrrhotite structure into a pyrite stoichiometry. A new
representation for the pyrrhotite oxidation process
is proposed in Figure 10 based on the experimental
results described previously.
According to this new process, the oxidation of
pyrrhotite goes through three distinct stages. First,
the pyrrhotite is in the non-oxidized form, representing a very low or no presence of oxygen (Stage I).
Then, oxidation starts and restructuring of the
Figure 9. Pyrrhotite oxidation process.
Materiales de Construcción 64 (316), October–December 2014, e038. ISSN-L: 0465-2746. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413
8 • I. Oliveira et al.
the surface oxidize, resulting in oxides and finally
in iron hydroxides. This new representation should
also be considered when modelling the kinetics of
the reactions that govern the expansive mechanism
and the resulting damage.
Figure 10. New representation for the pyrrhotite oxidation.
pyrrhotite into pyrite occurs due to the diffusion
of iron through the pyrrhotite surface (Stage II).
Finally, the products of the pyrrhotite oxidation are
formed (Stage III).
Notice that the new representation also includes
the conversion path for the pyrite. In this case, the
conversion path starts for the non-oxidized particle
at a S/Fe ratio of 2. Then, as pyrite becomes in contact of oxygen, the reaction gradually goes through
stages II and III.
The predominant iron sulfide present in the analyzed host rock samples is the pyrrhotite, which
generally appears in the host rock as bands with a
plate-shaped geometry. These bands mark planes
of weakness, which are susceptible to the appearance of cracks. It was also found that characteristic
ratios of 2.44 for the Fe/O ratio and of 2.63 for the
S/O ratio mark critical limits that produce the activation and acceleration of the pyrrhotite oxidation.
This should lead to an increase of the expansive
reactions and, consequently, of the risk of structural damage.
It was confirmed that the cracks mark a preferential path for the entry of the oxidizing agent
(oxygen). Thus, the analyzed aggregates that present pyrrhotite bands with cracks show a degree of
oxidation much more pronounced than the aggregates without cracks. Such consideration is of the
outmost importance for the development of models to predict the evolution of the expansive reactions since it indicates that the diffusion of oxygen
should be considered through the cracks rather than
through the aggregate.
The microanalysis and the chemical study validate the new representation proposed for the progress
of the pyrrhotite oxidation. According to this new
representation, initial restructuring of the pyrrhotite into pyrite stoichiometry occurs due to the iron
diffusion to the surface of the particle. After this,
Funding and support of this research was provided by the Research Contract UPC – ENDESA
(Dam Project) and IBERDROLA (Horex Project).
The authors would like to thank the technical
support of: Juan Manuel Buil and Felipe Rios by
ENDESA and Arturo Gil and Ana Belen Martin
Vacas by IBERDROLA. This study has been conducted in collaboration with the Department of
Building Materials of the Ecole Polytechnique
Federale de Lausanne - EPFL (Switzerland).
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Materiales de Construcción 64 (316), October–December 2014, e038. ISSN-L: 0465-2746. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/mc.2014.08413