Pacific Ocean Mud Holds a Wealth of Suddenly Not-So-Rare Earth Minerals
Rare earth minerals, you say? More like Well Done, which is the nature of the kudos being given to Japanese scientists who've discovered an abundance of the supposedly uncommon metallic elements in mud dredged from the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
“The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths,” according to Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo. “Just one square kilometer (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption.”
Kato's exploration team, which includes researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, measured surprisingly high levels of rare earth minerals in seafloor mud lying up to 20,000 ft (6,000 m) below sea level. The discovery was no shot in the dark, either, as 78 different locations were sampled. Of extra importance is that the rare earth deposits are located in international waters near Hawaii and Tahiti.
The discovery could through a wrench into China's current dominance of the world's rare earth minerals market, which has led to supply bottlenecks some say are both economically and politically motivated. Japan has been seeking other sources of rare earths, which are used in high-tech consumer goods such as flat-screen TVs and mobile phones, since China restricted sales of the minerals following an altercation between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessels near disputed islands off southern Japan last November.
The nature of the newfound rare earths is as pleasing as the potential quantity: according to professor Kato, rare earth minerals in ocean mud can be refined at sea using diluted acids. This, plus the fact that radioactive elements like Uranium and Thorium usually found in conjunction with rare earths on land aren't turning up in the oceanic samples, will alleviate pollution and toxicity issues that have plagued traditional rare earth mining ventures.
Though details of the discovery were published on Monday July 4th in the online version of the British journal Nature Geoscience, no mention was made as to when large-scale extraction of rare earth minerals from the seafloor mud might begin. With China currently accounting for 97 percent of global rare earth supplies, we can assume action will be taken sooner rather than later. (via CBC and Reuters)
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