Composition of Sedimentary Rocks

Types of Sedimentary Rocks

There are three main types of sedimentary rocks that differ based on their composition and process of formation.

1. Clastic Sedimentary Rocks (also called detrital sedimentary rocks)

Mechanical weathering physically splits or breaks previously formed rocks into smaller fragments called clasts. These clasts may be individual minerals or rock fragments, but they may also include fragments of hard organic materials such as shells. Clasts may range in size from boulders to microscopic particles most commonly known as clay.

After weathering creates the clasts they are transported by wind, water, ice or gravity to a new location where they are physically deposited. The resulting clastic sedimentary rock is composed of fragments of pre-existing rocks.

2. Chemical Sedimentary Rocks

In chemical weathering, minerals of existing rocks of any type are dissolved primarily by water.  The dissolved ions are transported to a new location where they come out of solution (a process called chemical precipitation) to form new chemical sedimentary rocks composed of interlocking mineral crystals. Some of these sediments have mineral grains that are visible to the eye, but often they are so fine-grained that the crystals may not be visible even with a microscope.

3. Biochemical Sedimentary Rocks

Biochemical sedimentary rocks are a subset of chemical sedimentary rocks.  They occur when biological organisms cause minerals to chemically precipitate from solution.  They can range from fine-grained mud on the deep ocean floor created by the microscopic shells of floating plankton that settle out from the ocean surface, all the way up to massive structures such as coral reefs formed by the support frameworks of coral colonies.

How Loose Sediments Become Sedimentary Rocks

A loose or unconsolidated sediment is one where the individual grains (clasts, minerals) of the sediment are separate from each other.  Air or water will occupy the pore space between the clasts when they are first deposited.  Sediments undergo lithification, which is the process of changing an unconsolidated sediment to a material that is considered a sedimentary rock.  There are three main processes:


1. Consolidation occurs as water (or air) is expelled from a sediment as it compresses under the weight of the sediments accumulating above, and the pore spaces between grains become smaller.

2. Cementation refers to the chemical precipitation of new minerals between pre-existing grains which helps to bind or cement the grains together. The most common cements are calcite (CaCO3) and silica (quartz, SiO2), but hematite (Fe2O3) and limonite [FeO(OH)] may also occur.

3. Re-crystallization may occur, in which the existing minerals that make up the sedimentary grains re-form their shapes to interlock together.  There is no change in the mineralogy, just the edges of the minerals are able to reform in new shapes that lock together better than before.

Once consolidated, cemented, and possibly re-crystallized, a sediment has become a sedimentary rock.

Mineral Composition

Determination of whether a rock is clastic, chemical or biochemical can start with identifying the mineral composition of the rock.  Some primary or original minerals occur mainly in clastic sedimentary rocks (e.g. quartz, feldspar) whereas others are exclusive to chemical/biochemical sedimentary rocks (e.g. gypsum, halite).  If the rock has been cemented together, then the composition of the cement can sometimes be indicative of the rock category.  Silica (quartz) and calcite are the most common cementing minerals in clastic rocks whereas calcite is the most common cement in chemical and biochemical sedimentary rocks.


What to Know about Minerals for EESC 121:

In EESC 111, the course spends several lab sections on identifying minerals, and examining them in hand specimens.  Students who have taken EESC 111 or an equivalent will find a refresher on minerals at the end of this page.  This course does not cover minerals in the same detail.  You are expected to know that there are two broad categories of minerals: silicates and non-silicates.



The clastic sedimentary rocks we shall examine first are based upon silicate minerals.  You will need to be able to identify two of these silicate minerals: quartz and feldspar.  Use these “non-technical” descriptions to guide you, along with help from the T.A.

Quartz: translucent, sometimes totally clear, but usually with a bit of light grayish colour, hard, does not have nice linear or planar sides, or a nice regular shape, but usually has a more irregular surface.

Feldspars: typically white or pink, opaque, hard, sometimes have linear or planar (flat) faces.

Non Silicates

These minerals are all covered in more detail in the chemical/biochemical rocks section.

Carbonates: The chemical and biochemical rocks are based upon carbonates.  A simple test using dilute hydrochloric acid (HCl) described here helps you tell carbonates (calcite, dolomite) apart from other minerals.

Gypsum, Halite:  These two minerals are also covered in the chemical sedimentary rocks.  They have similar appearances with a typically a translucent cloudy grey colour in big samples, or white in small samples, with visible linear or planar crystal faces.  Sometimes these planar features are visible inside the crystals.  Halite is familiar to you as table salt.

Hematite: This is an iron oxide mineral that is a reddish-brown rust-like colour.  It gives a reddish brown tint to many types of sediment that are formed in air where oxygen is present.

Want to Know More About Minerals?

This material is for additional background only. You will not be tested on it.

Minerals are described using:

  • Colour
  • Luster: the appearance of a mineral in normal light. (e.g., metallic, non-metallic, dull, pearly, brilliant, resinous, glassy, waxy)
  • Hardness (H): A number from 1 to 10 that describes the hardness of a mineral relative to 10 index minerals that make up the Mohs hardness scale.
  • Cleavage: the number and orientation of flat planes along which the mineral breaks.
  • Fracture: how a mineral breaks when it breaks in a non-planar fashion not along a cleavage plane.
  • Form: the shape a crystal will form when it grows in an unrestricted space.
  • Twinning: the internal structure of some minerals changes across a plane and becomes a mirror image.  The externally visible crystal form will mirror across the twinning plane.
Table 1.1 Mineralogy of Sedimentary Rocks
Most common in clastic sedimentary rocks
Quartz CL White to grey, glassy luster on chonchoidal fractures, H = 7
Quartz (chert) C, CL, B Many colours, no visible mineral grains, chonchoidal fracture, H = 7
Feldspar CL White or pink, look for twins, 2 cleavages, H = 6
Biotite CL Shiny, black to gold, one perfect cleavage
Muscovite CL Shiny, silvery, one perfect cleavage
Clay CL Many colours, microscopic grains, earthy smell when wet, H = 1-2
Limonite CL Yellow-brown, fine grained, cementing and colouring agent
Most common in chemical and biochemical sedimentary rocks
Calcite B, C, CL White-grey-black, H = 3, reacts with dilute HCl
Dolomite C Grey-buff, H = 3.5, reacts mildly with dilute HCl when powdered
Gypsum C White-grey, H = 1, associated with carbonates
Halite C Whitish-grey-blue-pinkish, H = 2.5, tastes salty
Sylvite C Orange, H = 2, stinging salty taste
Quartz (chert) C Many colours, no visible mineral grains, chonchoidal fracture, H = 7 (same properties as above)
Hematite C Red-black, red-dark brown streak, H ≤ 6.5, common in Precambrian iron formations
*Under “Rock Types,” CL = most common in clastic sedimentary rocks, B = biochemical, and C = chemical.


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