Ocean floor muddies China's grip on '21st-century gold'

Jul 03, 2011 by Richard Ingham

China's monopoly over rare-earth metals could be challenged by the discovery of massive deposits of these hi-tech minerals in mud on the Pacific floor, a study on Sunday suggests.

China accounts for 97 percent of the world's production of 17 rare-earth elements, which are essential for electric cars, flat-screen TVs, iPods, , lasers, missiles, night-vision goggles, wind turbines and many other advanced products.

These elements carry exotic names such as neodymium, promethium and yttrium but in spite of their "rare-earth" tag are in fact abundant in the planet's crust.

The problem, though, is that land deposits of them are thin and scattered around, so sites which are commercially exploitable or not subject to tough environment restrictions are few.

As a result, the 17 elements have sometimes been dubbed "21st-century gold" for their rarity and value.

Production of them is almost entirely centred on China, which also has a third of the world's reserves. Another third is held together by former Soviet republics, the United States and Australia.

But a new study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, points to an extraordinary concentration of rare-earth elements in thick mud at great depths on the Pacific floor.

Japanese studied samples from 78 sites covering a major portion of the centre-eastern Pacific between 120 and 180 degrees longitude.

Drills extracted sedimentary cores to depths that in place were more than 50 metres (165 feet) below the .

More than 2,000 of these cores were chemically tested for content in rare-earth elements.

The scientists found rich deposits in samples taken more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the Pacific's mid-ocean ridges.

The material had taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate, depositing at the rate of less than half a centimetre (0.2 of an inch) per thousand years. They were probably snared by action with a hydrothermal mineral called phillipsite.

At one site in the central North Pacific, an area of just one square kilometre (0.4 of a square mile) could meet a fifth of the world's annual consumption of rare metals and yttrium, says the paper.

Lab tests show the deposits can be simply removed by rinsing the mud with diluted acids, a process that takes only a couple of hours and, say the authors, would not have any environmental impact so long as the acids are not dumped in the ocean.

A bigger question is whether the technology exists for recovering the mud at such great depths -- 4,000 to 5,000 metres (13,000 to 16,250 feet) -- and, if so, whether this would be commercially viable.

In an email exchange with AFP, lead author Yasuhiro Kato, a professor of economic geology and geochemistry at the University of Tokyo, said the response from mining companies was as yet unknown, "because nobody knows the presence of the (rare-earth) -rich mud that we have discovered."

"I am not an engineer, just a geoscientist," Kato said. "But about 30 years ago, a German mining company succeeded in recovering deep-sea mud from the Red Sea. So I believe positively that our deep-sea is technologically developable as a mineral resource."

The market for has tightened considerably over the last couple of years.

China has slashed export quotas, consolidated the industry and announced plans to build national reserves, citing environmental concerns and domestic demand.

These moves led to a fall of 9.3 percent in China's exports of last year, triggering complaints abroad of strategic hoarding and price-gouging.

Japanese industry sources also said China temporarily cut off exports last year during a territorial row between Asia's two largest economies.

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Telekinetic
1.8 / 5 (10) Jul 03, 2011
"Lab tests show the deposits can be simply removed by rinsing the mud with diluted acids, a process that takes only a couple of hours and, say the authors, would not have any environmental impact so long as the acids are not dumped in the ocean."
Yeah, right, leave the mining to the Tony Soprano Rare-Earth Recovery Company.
Husky
not rated yet Jul 03, 2011
just goes to show that if the price is right, the market will find it, the acid disposal sounds sketchy though, no word if it can be recycled into the process, or that so far from territorial borders/laws mining companies will take the effort
ThanderMAX
2 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2011
What about the impact of stiring those toxic mud in ocean floor ? Won't that impact fish stock's health ?

This reminds me of arsenic epidemic in asian countries due to unrestricted draining of ground water.

Don't make similar catastrophe in fragile oceanic ecosystems.
ThanderMAX
2.7 / 5 (3) Jul 03, 2011
When first deep-ocean submersible vehicle "bathyscaphe Trieste" reached mariana trench (the deepest place on earth), they waited more than hour for stired mud to settle but it didn't and they had to retreat.

Think about what will happen when drill machines/scoopers skim the mud.
spacer
4 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2011
Hughes would have had no trouble with it.
Cave_Man
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 03, 2011
"Lab tests show the deposits can be simply removed by rinsing the mud with diluted acids, a process that takes only a couple of hours and, say the authors, would not have any environmental impact so long as the acids are not dumped in the ocean."
Yeah, right, leave the mining to the Tony Soprano Rare-Earth Recovery Company.


No kidding, the one thing they arent supposed to do is going to turn into the biggest drain on their profits leading them to lobby for softer regulation or they will just plain ignore the regulations all together.

Who's gonna catch them in the middle of the ocean....
stripeless_zebra
4 / 5 (4) Jul 03, 2011
Finally it's time to vacuum this mess and clean the ocean floor :)
eachus
not rated yet Jul 03, 2011
First, even mentioning the acid as an environmental hazard is poorly informed. The acid reacts with the metals in the mud, and any economic method of recovery will recycle most, if not all of the acid. If a company is doing this sort of recovery on land, there is an issue, as piling the ore on the ground is cheaper than putting a liner under it. At sea? Not a problem.

Dumping the (now mineral poor) mud though, is a huge potential problem. My guess though, is that the solution will be to leach the mud in situ. Drill one set of holes to put the acid in, pull the metals in solution out of another set.

May sound complex, but a lot cheaper than pulling up say 100 tonnes of mud for a hundred kilos of metals.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2011
"First, even mentioning the acid as an environmental hazard is poorly informed."
So why would the AUTHORS of this study mention it?:"would not have any environmental impact so long as the acids are not dumped in the ocean."
If you were mining offshore while bribing officials of a third world country or a banana republic, you might get away with it. But eventually someone would blow the whistle and you, considering the heat related to coral reef health, would have a lot of explaining to do.
socean
1 / 5 (2) Jul 03, 2011
Big oil companies have the most expertise in meeting these types of challenges and they have the capital to invest in the infrastructure. I think its likely that they will start "fracking" operations to recover rare earth metals instead of fossil fuels.

Wolfenstein
5 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2011
The amount of Acid necessary to pose a risk would have to be both immensely strong and immensely abundant to pose a threat to anything down stream of the oceans currents.

The acid would quickly ionise in water and disperse in to relatively harmless waste.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (6) Jul 04, 2011
Let the Chinese control the market in rare-earths, and let the Western world control the marketplace, as in, increasing tariffs on Chinese imports. Suddenly, the Chinese will be a lot more conciliatory with their stash of rare-earths. We must change the course this world's taken. I don't want to kneel before an Emperor.
LuckyBrandon
1 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2011
@telekinetic - no worries, our alient overlords are still on course for the planet, so we have awhile :)

ziprar2
1 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2011
Knowing how govs and consumers need their missiles and their ipods (cheaply), I feel sorry for the fragile marine ecosystem which will probably be destroyed in the process of extracting these metals.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (6) Jul 04, 2011
@telekinetic - no worries, our alient overlords are still on course for the planet, so we have awhile :)


I don't want to kneel before Emperor Ming, either. As much as I'd like to believe it, Flash Gordon, I'm not.
Jonseer
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 05, 2011
Let the Chinese control the market in rare-earths, and let the Western world control the marketplace, as in, increasing tariffs on Chinese imports. Suddenly, the Chinese will be a lot more conciliatory with their stash of rare-earths.....


So how does increasing the price we pay for Chinese raw materials punish China?

Tariffs mean WE the importers pay a higher price.

Tariffs work when there are a several sources, and that's not the case.

That means we still have to pay tariffs.

Tariffs would only mean they can produce less and make the same amount of money.

Of course you may be referring to Chinese exports in general, well considering the massive imbalance in THEIR favor the developed world is currently running, we will suffer far more and quicker than China would from the imposition of tariffs.

Additionally China is rapidly developing its own internal markets, already #3 in the world. Tariffs would force China to look inward and develop even faster.
Graeme
not rated yet Jul 05, 2011
Perhaps all that excess CO2 could be pressurized and pumped under the sea to make carbonic acid to do the job. Since this is far from land, no country can claim jurisdiction. Any way how much is it concentrated? Rare earths are not really rare in terrestrial rocks. It is just China undercutting the market to take control.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (6) Jul 05, 2011
@jonseer:
I'm referring to increasing tariffs on ALL Chinese IMPORTS into the U.S., not raw materials. Obama increased a tariff on Chinese tires a couple of years ago, the Chinese complained, but did they stop sending their slave-made crap? Do you know about the mess Chinese sheetrock has created here? Economists predict all kinds of dire ramifications- increased consumer costs, loss of jobs, etc. Even the genius Alan Greenspan miscalculated the level of greed in the financial markets and realized that self governance is a pipe dream. I don't believe anyone's prognostications anymore. In fact, industrialists like GM and Ford, who are now paying a Chinese auto factory laborer 200 dollars per month want us to believe in this propaganda. Follow the money, and you'll see who the real winners in the "trade wars" are.
GSwift7
1 / 5 (2) Jul 05, 2011
Okay, first of all. I've seen people talk about fragile ecosystems here. The place they are talking about is the most lifeless place on Earth, by far. This place makes Antarctica look like a lush jungle. You could scrape up miles of deep seabed and never disturb a single living thing bigger than a microbe, and even those are few there. You're talking about absolute darkness, 24/7/365, freezing temperatures, extraordinary pressure, and little or no oxygen in the water and no circulation to restore oxygen if something breathes what little is there. If there is any place on Earth where you could do dangerous experiments and be nearly 100% sure that any contamination would remain naturally contained for thousands of years, this is the place. This is the ultimate wasteland of the Earth. There is literally NOTHING there but mud. If you pee in the water there, your pee will stay virtually in one place for tens of thousands of years.
GSwift7
1 / 5 (2) Jul 05, 2011
This might be a totally moot point though. The cost of getting the minerals up might be comparable to getting minerals from an asteroid or the Moon. Someone in the far distant future might be able to exploit them, but I would bet a part of my body which is important for sitting that it won't be any time soon. You've gotta have something that's worth a lot of money per unit of weight before harvesting and processing at sea is cost effective.

Here's the catch 22 that makes me sure of that statement: If it's not really expensive to do it, then the price of the minerals falls to the point that it's not worth it any more.
KBK
1 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2011
We can dredge it easily, the gear is available and relatively cheap.

Look up spectra rope. SPECTEC-12, as an example. 16500 feet of it at 1.25 inch diameter is....6000 lbs. Breaking strength is..a colossal 110,000lbs.

That is far from the strongest that can be made. The heavy lifting part is a done deal, so the rest needs a bit of work...