Rare earth elements in the ocean floor

Posted by David Gomez

Rare earth elements are important to technologies like cell phones, televisions, fluorescent light bulbs and wind turbines. And the mother lode of rare earth elements is in the ocean floor.

According to Science News, Japanese scientists have discovered that the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is made up of huge concentrations of rare earth elements.

The Japanese geologists reported July 3 in Nature Geoscience that they believe one square patch of ocean mud, 2.3 kilometers (1.42 mi) wide, might contain enough rare earths to fill the majority of the global demand for a year.

“I believe that rare earth resources undersea are much more promising than on-land resources,” says Yasuhiro Kato, a geologist at the University of Tokyo who led the study.

China produces more than 97 percent of the world’s rare earth elements from mines. They have restricted the amount of elements they export recently. This has led to skyrocketing prices and fears of a worldwide shortage. These fears are especially prevalent in Japan where they lack minable deposits of these elements.

Throughout the Pacific Ocean Kato’s team took seafloor core samples from 78 sites. Around Hawaii and in the southeast Pacific, the levels of rare earths were similar to what is found in clays mined in China. Certain deposits had twice as much heavy rare earths like dysprosium, which happens to be a component of magnets in hybrid car motors.

“The heavier rare earths tend to be ones that command greater price because of their scarcity,” says Alex King, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory in Iowa.

Mining in the deep-sea is an old idea, but it has not been able to be used widely because of high costs and environmental concerns. Manganese and zinc in the floor of the Rea Sea have sat there for decades because it’s not yet practical to mine for them.

“I don’t understand how this can be expected to be an economic way to recover rare earth,” says Daniel Cordier, a mineral commodity specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Minerals Information Center in Reston, Va.

Even if the rare earth elements are able to be mined, experts don’t think that it will be able to fix then tensions that China, the U.S. and Japan feel towards each other. If someone is able to mine the elements and reduce China’s control of the world market for rare earths, it won’t do much to fix the adversarial relationships that China has with the rest of their industrialized competitors. However, it would certainly benefit the mining industry.

Currently, some analysts believe accessing all of the rare earth elements that Japanese scientists have discovered is nothing more than a pipe dream. It is believed that mining for these elements in the ocean poses no immediate threat to the traditional mining operations set up on land.

Right now the technology for mining for rare earths in the ocean floor doesn’t exist. But with the world demand for rare earths in technology expected to increase, it likely only a matter of time before a mining company develops a way to effectively mine rare earth elements from the ocean floor.