Date of this Version
Utah Geosites 2019; Utah Geological Association Publication 48
Southern Utah’s “wonderstone” is Shinarump sandstone, variably cemented and stained with iron oxide, forming intricate patterns reminiscent of landscapes. It is cut and sold as absorbent drink coasters and decorative objects, and is seen in rock shops across the country. The wonderstone pattern comprises thick bands of iron oxide mineralization that fills pore space (referred to as iron oxide cement or IOC) and more delicate bands of iron oxide mineralization that coats sand grains but does not fill pore space (referred to as iron oxide stain or IOS) (figure 1).
The wonderstone pattern is of interest to geologists because it formed after the Shinarump sandstone was deposited from iron that was transported in aqueous solution. The iron that now resides in the cement and stain occurs as oxidized iron (iron-III) minerals (e.g., goethite and hematite). Significant amounts of iron-III can be transported in aqueous solution only under very unusual conditions. On the other hand, if an electron is added to iron-III, the resultant reduced iron (iron-II) can be transported readily in aqueous solutions. But iron-II forms a different group of minerals, typically pyrite (FeS2) and siderite (FeCO3) that do not have the characteristic red color of the wonderstone cement and stain. How was the iron that now resides in the wonderstone transported to its current location? What was the chemical mechanism for removing the iron from natural waters and fixing it as iron-III minerals?
The typical explanation for the wonderstone pattern is that the bands of iron oxide cement and stain are Liesegang bands. Liesegang bands were discovered originally by chemists and are a form of chemical self-organization that produces bands of insoluble material from the mixing of two solutions. The conventional interpretation is that when pyrite is exposed to oxygen-rich groundwater the pyrite will dissolve, producing a strongly acidic, iron-rich solution. Iron-III will migrate in solution toward the source of oxygen. This aqueous iron-III will then precipitate as the solution is neutralized to form the Liesegang bands of iron oxide cement. This conventional interpretation was developed before geologists recognized the importance of microbes to processes that occur at low temperature.
Our interpretation is that iron was introduced to the rock as iron- II shortly after sediment deposition and formed the mineral siderite. As the Colorado Plateau experienced uplift more oxygen-rich groundwaters invaded the Shinarump Sandstone. Iron-oxidizing bacteria thrive by transferring an electron from iron-II to oxygen to make iron-III. Energy is released during this transfer that the bacteria use to survive (in the same way that humans transfer electrons from the carbon in food to oxygen and survive using the energy released in those reactions). The IOC was produced through dissolution of siderite followed by oxidation of aqueous iron-II by microbes at a succession of oxidation-reduction interfaces. The IOC bands mark the position of interfaces where iron-oxidizing bacteria converted aqueous iron II to iron-III with a consequent precipitation of iron III oxide. We consider the iron oxide staining, on the other hand, to be Liesegang produced by the inter-diffusion of iron II and oxygen after the bands of cement were produced. See Kettler and others (2015) for a more complete description of the processes. The outcrops and blocks of wonderstone in this quarry provide a good summary of the evidence that falsifies the pyrite oxidation hypothesis in favor of our hypothesis.