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Floor Of Pacific Reveals Treasure Of Rare Earth Elements

July 5, 2011

Researchers from Japan say they have discovered vast deposits of rare earth minerals on the sea floor, minerals that are in high demand and used for modern gadgets and computers. Geologists estimate that there are about a 100 billion tons of the rare elements in the mud of the Pacific Ocean floor, BBC News is reporting.

If recovering these minerals from the sea floor proves to be commercially viable, the discovery of these deposits could challenge the dominance of China’s production of these much needed components of today’s modern conveniences. China currently produces 97 percent of these high-demand minerals.

A team of scientists led by Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, found the minerals in sea mud at 78 locations at depths of 11,500-20,000 feet below the ocean surface in international waters east and west of Hawaii, and east of Tahiti.

“The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one 0.4 square mile of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption,” Kato said.

The US Geological Survey has estimated that current global reserves are just 110 million tons, found mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries, and the United States. Kato estimates that rare earths contained in the newfound deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion tons.

Japan, a primary manufacturer of products that demand such minerals, has since sought new sources as China’s apparent monopoly of rare earth production enabled it to restrain supply last year during a territorial dispute with Japan.

The number of firms seeking license to extract materials from the Pacific Ocean floor is growing rapidly.

The government of Malaysia is considering allowing the construction of an Australian-financed project to mine rare earths, in the face of local opposition focused on fears of radioactive wastes.

The listed mining company Nautilus has the first license to mine the floor of the Bismarck and Solomon oceans around Papua New Guinea and will be recovering what is called sea floor massive sulphide, for its copper and gold content.

Possible damages from deep sea mining for precious metals are worrying for environmentalists.

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