Global NEST Journal, Vol 11, No 1, pp 96-105, 2009
Copyright© 2009 Global NEST
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BEHAVIOUR OF TRACE ELEMENTS DURING THE NATURAL EVAPORATION
OF SEA WATER: CASE OF SOLAR SALT WORKS OF SFAX SALINE
(S.E OF TUNISIA)
Laboratory of analysis,
General Company of Tunisian saline, CO.TU.SAL
Gabes Road Km 0.5, P.O Box 86
3018 Sfax, Tunisia
*to whom all correspondence should be addressed:
We have carried out a geochemical study on the behaviour of certain trace elements
during the evaporative concentration of free brines (salinity from 41 to 400 ‰) of the solar
salt works of Sfax saline (S.E of Tunisia). The elements concerned by this survey are
Zinc, Cadmium, Manganese, Molybdenum, Lead, Copper, Aluminium, Iron and Barium.
Adequate analytical techniques, adapted to this environment of high salinity, have been
used to follow the evolution of the concentration of concerned elements in brines
subjected to the evaporation. The results obtained have been presented in function of
concentration factor calculated on the basis of the Lithium content in seawater (Coast of
Sfax) and those in the brines of salt works.
During the evaporation process, the concentration of trace elements in brines was
affected by the evaporation phenomenon for the same reason as the major elements.
Nevertheless, their concentrations remain very weak and don't reach their saturation
doorsteps. The participation of these elements in the mineral phases can take place only
by co-precipitation with saline paragenesis. It is the case of Zinc that can precipitate with
Sulphates Salts, the Cadmium, Barium and Copper with Carbonate and Gypsum, the
Manganese and the Molybdenum with Potassium Salts; others like Iron and Aluminium,
are characterized by a very complex behaviour and are subjected, therefore to effects
others than those of the evaporation and the co–precipitation. We can mention the
activity of the biological system and adsorption phenomena, in particular, on the organic
and mineral particles. They are frequent in ponds where brines are not yet very
concentrated; allowing an important biological productivity. Contents in these elements
are then variable and very dependent on the growth and the physiological state of the
organic matter. These micro-organisms use some metals in their metabolic activities, and
notably those that act like vitamin factors. The analysis of sediment and algae sampled
from the first ponds of the saline, shows that they are capable as well to fix some
important quantities of trace elements. The liberation of these elements by deterioration
of organic matter, provoke the important fluctuations of their contents in free brines. In
basins where the biologic activity is very limited because of the increase of brines salinity,
the evolution of the concentration of trace elements translate the only effect of the
evaporation, counterbalanced by adsorption phenomenon and the co-precipitation with
the salts deposit.
KEYWORDS: Brines, salinity, salt, salt works, concentration factor, saturation, biological
system, adsorption, algae co-precipitation, saline paragenesis.
BEHAVIOUR OF TRACE ELEMENTS DURING NATURAL EVAPORATION
Solar Salt works of Sfax saline were installed in the south of Sfax City. They cover nearly
1500 hectares area divided on several ponds along seacoast about 12 km (Figure 1).
From the sea, the initial solutions (salinity ? 40 ‰) are progressively concentrated; to
reach a very advanced stage rarely reached in the nature (salinity ? 400 ‰). During their
movement between the different ponds, brines let precipitate several evaporative facies,
beginning by carbonates until the precipitation of potassium and Magnesium salts
(Amdouni et al., 1990). This evolution results in very important variations in
concentrations and the behaviour of dissolved elements. These variations, answer to
several effects, which the enrichment by evaporation and the impoverishment by
precipitation are the most important factors. Other local effects can intervene and are
generally responsible for the local variations that mark the ionic concentrations of metal
traces. We can mention the biologic activity, the adsorption on the organic and mineral
After concentration in preparatory ponds, we obtained saturated brine (density ? 1.220)
are used to nourish the crystallising pond where halite crystallises. Brines having already
precipitated their sodium chlorides (density ? 1.255) were also evaporated to obtain
magnesium brine (density > 1.330).
Figure 1. Location map of Sfax Saline.
The objective of this study is to follow the evolution of trace elements in seawater during
the evaporation process. Factor “FC”, that used, like reference scale, was calculated on
a basis of Lithium content of seawater (Coast of Sfax) and those of the brines sampled in
different ponds of the saline. The use of Lithium as a reference scale is justified by the
fact that this element is not implied in any minerals of the saline paragenesis that
precipitates during the progressive evaporation of brines.
2. SAMPLING AND EXPERIMENTAL METHODS
2.1. Sampling: Waters samplings have been achieved during two seasons (Autumn and
spring). All the samples are free brines with the exception of those taken in the ponds of
Magnesium chloride solutions that are interstitial brine. In addition, in the aim of
discovering all salinity fields, some samples were obtained by evaporation in the
2.2. Preparations and analyses: After filtration and acidification, trace elements in the
brines were analysed by Electro-thermal Atomic Absorption Spectrometry with Zeeman
Correction (HITACHI Z-7000). All analytical methods used were adapted to this
environment of high salinity. The analytical problems caused by the high concentration of
salts, have been surmounted by the use of the synthetic matrices and an adequate
modifier (Amdouni, 1990).
3. RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS
3.1. Zinc behaviour: The behaviour of zinc in the seawater and in brines is remarkably
dependent upon the pH (Long and Eangino, 1977). One distinguishes at least two
different domains; for the pH ? 8, Zn(OH) °
2 is the most dominant species; for a neutral or
acidic pH the chlorides complexes are the most predominant species. This difference in
the speciation drives to a difference in the behaviour of zinc during the evaporative
concentration of brines.
In the free brines of Sfax Saline the content in zinc varies between 2 and 25 µmoles kg-1.
From the seawater and until a concentration factor equal to 20 is reached, the
concentration of Zn is very variable, but with a general tendency to the increase. In the
most concentrated brines (FC ? 20), the content in Zn remains nearly constant (Figure 2).
Such behaviour recalls the one of the sulphate ions (Amdouni, 2000).
In the beginning of the concentration process, the distribution of values detected in brines
is due to the fact that the concentration of Zn is under biologic influence (the algae of the
saline contain between 0.1 and 8 mmoles kg-1 of Zn). From the same graphic we
observed that in general the contents of Zn detected in May are superior to those
measured in November. In ponds where the biologic activity is much reduced, the content
of Zn that couldn’t be precipitated, like a zinc salt, participle to the evaporative
paragenesis only by co-precipitation with minerals phases. Indeed, zinc can mutually
substitute with the metals group of magnesium-Iron thanks to the similarity in their ionic
radius. The sodium chloride, deposited in crystallisers, contains between 10 and 25
µmoles kg-1 of zinc.
Figure 2. Evolution of Zinc concentration in brines of Sfax Saline
3.2. Cadmium behaviour: In the seawater the speciation of the cadmium is very close to
those of zinc and it shows a big affinity for chlorides. According to the physico-chemical
conditions (pH, temperature and salinity), several complex shapes (CdCl+, CdCl °
2 , CdCl3 -
and CdCO3) can appear in solution. In neutral or slightly acidic solutions, the speciation of
the cadmium is extensively dominated by the chlorides complex (Long and Eangino,
In brines of Sfax Saline, the general evolution of the content in cadmium shows a certain
resemblance to those of strontium and calcium (Amdouni, 2000). This analogy results in
the similarity in their ionic radius, which permits the substitution of Ca in carbonates and
gypsum by Sr and Cd. The concentration in Cadmium, controlled in part by the biologic
BEHAVIOUR OF TRACE ELEMENTS DURING NATURAL EVAPORATION
activity (the algae of the saline contains between 0.03 and 0.05 mmoles kg-1 of Cd),
reaches a maximal value of 1 µmoles kg-1 for a concentration factor equal to 14 and
decreases until 0.05 µmoles kg-1 when the solution becomes about 20 times more
concentrated than the initial seawater (Figure 3). From the same graphic, we observe that
for the same concentration factors the contents detected in November are superior to
those measured in May. This seasonal variation (enrichment in November and
impoverishment in May) could be explained by storage of the cadmium by the biologic
system and its liberation after the death of micro-organism. In the densest brines, we
record a certain stability of cadmium contents with a middle value of 0.03 µmoles kg-1.
The involvement of the cadmium to salts deposit is limited to its incorporation in gypsum
and in the most soluble salts.
Figure 3. Evolution of Cadmium concentration in brines of Sfax saline
3.3. Manganese and the Molybdenum behaviours: In the natural waters the
behaviours of manganese and molybdenum depend extensively on the physico-chemical
conditions. Under the oxidizing conditions the Mn is immobilized by formation of an
insoluble dioxide (MnO2), whereas Mo remains in solution. Under the very reducing
conditions Mn and Mo can be precipitated as sulphides and could be accumulated in the
In the solutions of Sfax salt works, manganese and molybdenum show an identical
evolution. This behaviour, similar to those of the potassium and the rubidium (Amdouni,
2000), indicates a possibility of mutual replacement between K, Rb, Mn and Mo in the
In the initial solution of Sfax Saline, the concentration of manganese is about 0.18 µmoles
kg-1. This content evolves during the evaporation and reaches a maximal value of 25
µmoles kg-1 when the initial solution is almost 47 times more concentrated. Besides, the
manganese concentrations detected in May are less than those measured in November.
These seasonal variations that control the behaviour of Mn are in direct relation with the
activity of the biologic system (the algae of the Saline contain until 0.9 moles.kg-1 of Mn).
In the densest brines, the concentration of Mn is controlled both by evaporation and by
co-precipitation with the mineral phases. Therefore, the concentration of manganese
decreases progressively until 0.7 µmoles kg-1 (Figure 4). Crystals of salt contain between
15 and 300 µmoles kg-1 of Mn, with a remarkable enrichment in the potassium salts.
The content in molybdenum grows regularly in the beginning of the evaporation process
(Figure 5) and reaches a maximal value of 8.7 µmoles kg-1 for a concentration factor
equal to 60. This evolution is seriously affected in the domain of potassium salts where
we observed a sudden decrease of the molybdenum concentration. There also we note
the important seasonal variations being translated, as in the case of the manganese, by
enrichment in November and an impoverishment in May. The involvement of Mo to the
saline paragenesis is assured only by its co-precipitation with sodium chloride and
especially with potassium salts that contain until 0.11 µmoles kg-1 of Mo.
Figure 4. Evolution of Manganese concentration in brines of Sfax Saline
Figure 5. Evolution of Molybdenum concentration in brines of Sfax saline
3.4. Lead behaviour: The seawater sampled in coast of Sfax contains nearly 0.017
µmoles kg-1 of lead. This quantity, which superior to that detected in normal seawater,
testifies again to the influence of the industrial dismissal (lead in dismissal waters is about
0.081 µmoles kg-1) on the chemical quality of saline solutions.
In the zone where algae proliferate (FC ? 20) Pb contents are very variable because of
the biologic intervention (algae contain between 0.08 and 0.16 moles.kg-1 of Pb). In the
domain of gypsum the increase of the concentration of lead can be assigned only to the
evaporation effect. However, the content of Pb decrease in answer to its large
involvement to the saline paragenesis, notably with the Potassium salts (Figure 6). This
BEHAVIOUR OF TRACE ELEMENTS DURING NATURAL EVAPORATION
behaviour is expected because of the similarity of the Pb ionic radius to that of K. For
example, the German potash deposits contain 0.4 to 2.4 µmoles kg-1 with about 0.8 to 1.3
µmoles kg-1 for the sylvite (Kuhn, 1968). This content varies from 0.2 to 1.2 µmoles kg-1,
in salt deposits in Sfax salt works.
Figure 6. Evolution of Lead concentration in brines of Sfax Saline
3.5. Copper behaviour: The seawater sampled on the coast of Sfax, contains about
0.061 µmoles kg-1 of copper. This very elevated value, in relation to that of normal
seawater (0.008 µmoles kg-1; Golberg, 1969), could be explained by the influence of
industrial dismissal that contains about 0.068 µmoles kg-1 of Cu. In the most dilute
solutions of the saline the copper is distinctly enriched with a maximum of 5.5 µmoles kg-
1, reaches for a concentration factor equal to 10 (Figure 7). The variability of value,
observed for these less concentrated brines, is due to the fact that the concentration of
the copper is under biologic influence (algae contain between 0.12 and 0.24 mmoles kg-1
of copper). Such an influence results in the very important seasonal variations, because
the storage of the copper by certain micro-organisms and its liberation after their death. It
can be also greatly concentrated by accumulation under the reducing conditions. From
the crystallisers and until the end of evaporative process (20 ? FC ? 120) the
concentration of the copper in solutions is nearly constant and does not exceed 1 µmoles
kg-1. In this domain that is characterized by a total absence of the biologic activity the
content of copper is under mineral influence. The salts deposits in the saline ponds
contain between 1.6 and 16 µmoles kg-1.
It is necessary to note that, like Lead, Copper is strongly complexed by chlorides and
carbonates ions, even in the dilute solutions (Long and Eangino, 1977).
The general pace of the curve Cu versus FC recalls those of calcium and strontium
(Amdouni, 2000). However, contents of copper in gypsum are below the detection limit of
the used analytical methods.
Figure 7. Evolution of Copper concentration in brines of Sfax Saline
3.6. Aluminium behaviour: The seawater of the Coast of Sfax, contains 5.53 µmoles kg-
1 of aluminium. During the evaporation process the behaviour of Al show a certain
resemblance to that of the silica (Amdouni, 1990). In the less concentrated solutions
(salinity ? 130 ‰) the dissolved aluminium content is subjected to the biologic influence
that results in the important seasonal variations. These variations (enrichment in
November and impoverishment in May) are in direct relation with the conditions of micro-
organisms life, notably diatomite and algae (algae mats contain 1.7 to 24.5 g kg-1 of
aluminium) that use the aluminium in their biologic cycles. Also, it can be adsorbed on the
sedimentary particles and in the organic matter (Moran and Moore, 1989). In basins
where the biological activity seems to be very limited thanks to the increase of the salinity
(salinity > 130 ‰), the evolution of the concentration of the aluminium would be due to
the evaporation effect counterbalanced solely by adsorption and precipitation phenomena
(Figure 8). In the evaporative paragenesis the aluminium can be met as a sulphate
(simple or in association with Na and K), as fluoride (cryolite, chiolite, fluellite,…) and in
clays (mica-illite and kaolinite). It can be also substitute for the magnesium in magnesium
Figure 8. Evolution of Aluminium concentration in brines of Sfax Saline
BEHAVIOUR OF TRACE ELEMENTS DURING NATURAL EVAPORATION
3.7. Iron behaviour: In the aqueous solutions the behaviour of iron is largely depending
on its oxidization state. In the seawater and in neutral or slightly acidic waters, the ferrous
Iron, that represents the totality of iron in solution, is present as a free ion (Fe++) or in
association with the hydroxides, carbonates and sulphides.
In the first stage of evaporating process (salinity ? 140 ‰) the contents of iron in solutions
are very variable. These variations are due to the activity of microorganism that uses iron
in their biologic cycle. For example the algae mats contain between 11 and 250 mmoles
kg-1 of iron. Besides, it can be adsorbed on the clayey minerals and on the superficial
sediments (content of iron in sediments varies between 47 and 537 mmoles kg-1).
Iron fixed by algae or adsorbed on the sedimentary particles can be remobilized in
interstitial waters and according to physico-chemical conditions of the environment it can
precipitate as FeCO3 (in anaerobic environment) either as Fe2O3 (in aerobics
environment) (Scheider and Herrmann, 1980). It is also possible that Iron dissolved in
interstitial waters can migrate toward the surface. This migration of interstitial waters
would explain the variability of its concentration in free brines (Figure 9). In the more
concentrated solutions (salinity >140 ‰), the content of Fe is very weak and for certain
samples it is below the detection limit of the analytical method used to analyse Iron in
brines (Amdouni, 1990).
Figure 9. Evolution of Iron concentration in brines of Sfax Saline
3.8. Barium behaviour: In the beginning of evaporation process the concentration of the
barium in brines tends to increase and reaches a maximum of 4 µmoles kg-1 when the
solution becomes almost 2.5 at 3.5 times more concentrated than the initial seawater.
Nevertheless, we observe a sudden decrease of barium concentration and it seems to be
controlled by a mineral phase. In fact, the barium can be associated to sulphates and
carbonates ions to form barium sulphate (BaSO4) and barium carbonate (BaCO3). It is
respectively the barite and the witherite, which are the only minerals of barium met in the
saline paragenesis. The precipitation of these two minerals, that occurs since the
beginning of chemical precipitation, is generally camouflaged, first by calcium carbonates
then by gypsum. The seasonal variations observed for the concentration of brines in
barium would probably be due to the involvement of this element (by replacement of the
calcium) in the formation of carbonated tests, notably those of foraminifers.
From a concentration factor equal to 20 (domain of the halite), contents in barium become
very weak and rarely exceed the 0.2 µmoles kg-1 (Figure 10).
This behaviour, similar to those of the calcium and strontium (Amdouni, 2000), is
expected because of the resemblance of their ionic radius, which favours their mutual
replacement in the crystal networks.
Figure 10. Evolution of Barium concentration in brines of Sfax Saline
From this survey, we can conclude that during the evaporation process, the concentration
of trace elements in brines was affected by the evaporation phenomenon for the same
reason as the major elements. Nevertheless, their concentrations remain very weak and
don't reach their saturation doorsteps.
In the first stage of evaporating process, the evaporation effect is very limited and the
behaviour of trace elements is under the direct influence of the biological activities, which
colonize the first ponds of the Saline. This influence that results in the very important
seasonal variations in the concentrations of these metals trace is mainly due to the
physiological state of algae. Indeed, contents of metals detected in algae are not
negligible and sometimes exceed extensively the concentrations present in the free brine
of the same basin.
In the more concentrated brine, where the biological activity is absent or very limited
because of the increase of the salinity, the evolution of several elements was controlled
only by the evaporation-salt precipitation antagonist effect. However, in washed salt
produced by the Sfax Saline, trace metals are present in quantity relatively very reduced
compared to the tolerable limits fixed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (Amdouni
et al., 1990). It is due to the fact that, in addition to the biologic activity that largely
participates in the purification of the saline waters, the fractional crystallization, adopted in
the production of sea salt, constitutes itself a purifying process.
I would like to thank Mister Ben HMIDA M. and Mister AMDOUNI K. for the
revision of the English manuscript.
BEHAVIOUR OF TRACE ELEMENTS DURING NATURAL EVAPORATION
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