Geologist says there's no need to fight over mineral resources

October 7, 2010 By Lauren Gold

It's easy to be a pessimist in a world full of calamities. But for those worried about the continuing availability of natural resources, data from the ocean makes a good case for optimism, says economic geologist Lawrence Cathles.

In a review paper published June 23 online in the journal Mineralium Deposita, Cathles, Cornell professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, writes that while land-based deposits may be a dwindling source of valuable minerals, deposits on the could power humanity for centuries.

The minerals, including sulfur, copper, zinc, iron and , are contained in volcanogenic massive sulfide (VMS) deposits that form on the ocean floor where pull apart and allow magma () to invade the Earth's 3.7-mile- (6 kilometer-) thick crust. The magma heats seawater to 662 degrees Fahrenheit (350 degrees Celsius) and moves it through the ocean crust via convection; and the seawater deposits the minerals where it discharges along the ridge axis.

According to by Cathles and colleagues combined with heat flow measurements from the 1980s around the , the convection cools the entire crust -- "like a homeowner who lights a fire in his fireplace for the express purpose of cooling his house," said Cathles.

That knowledge, along with the known thickness of the ocean crust, allows researchers to calculate the quantity of dissolved minerals that could be transported over each square meter of ocean floor.

If just 3 percent of the dissolved minerals precipitate -- an estimate based on earlier studies -- the ocean floor would hold reserves vastly greater than those on land, Cathles said.

In the case of copper -- a key component in construction, power generation and transmission, industrial machinery, transportation, electronics, plumbing, heating and cooling systems, telecommunications and more -- calculations show that just half of the total accumulated amount could be enough to bring the world's growing population up to a modern standard of living and maintain it for centuries.

"I think there's a good chance that it's a lot more than 3 percent," Cathles said. "But even just taking 3 percent, if you calculate how long the copper on the ocean floor would last, just half of it could last humanity 50 centuries or more.

"You go back to Christ, and then you go twice as far again, and you've got that much copper," he said. "That's everyone living at a European standard of living, essentially forever." Equally large quantities of uranium, lithium, phosphate, potash and other minerals are dissolved in ocean water and could be extracted, he added.

With the necessary precautions, extracting the underwater deposits may also be a more environmentally friendly process than mining on land, Cathles said.

And it could provide other benefits, both scientific and psychological. Undersea exploration around ocean ridges could open doors to new research on the fundamental processes behind the formation of Earth's crust, he noted; and a more positive outlook on the future could lead to fewer wars and more positive engagement.

"We are not resource limited on planet Earth. For a human on Earth to complain about resources is like a trillionaire's child complaining about his allowance or inheritance. It just doesn't have much credibility in my view," he said.

"I think there's real risk if we don't really carefully, and in a credible way, articulate that there are enough resources for everybody," he added. "We don't have to fight over these things."

Explore further: Quantifying Earth's copper: Study puts numbers on nonrenewabilility

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3.3 / 5 (4) Oct 07, 2010
This is the worst sciene article Ive read in a while. We could also say there is no hydrocarbon shortage as many planets and moons on the solar system are full of them, enough to power humankind for millions of years... and yet you surely understand or at least should, that quantity of resources is not even half of what the availability story is about.
not rated yet Oct 07, 2010

They allready working on it :)
2.1 / 5 (7) Oct 07, 2010
""We are not resource limited on planet Earth. For a human on Earth to complain about resources is like a trillionaire's child complaining about his allowance or inheritance. It just doesn't have much credibility in my view," he said."
This is from an Ivy League professor? Maybe there are a few intelligent professors.
not rated yet Oct 07, 2010
Isn't it harder for us to travel a few miles under water than to travel 50 miles into space?
5 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2010
I can't even imagine what the costs would be to "mine" metals and other resources from the banks of the deep ocean trenches. More than likely the costs would be more than most corporations or even most governments can afford.

Humans slaughter each other over accessible resources, not inaccessible ones.
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2010
Apex01, I would say no. It takes a lot of energy to go into space. Take 1000 tonnes into space at $100.00 per tonne makes it impractical. Lowering and raising 1000 tonnes into a mile of water is much easier.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 07, 2010
This possibility has been touted since at least the early 60s- I remember reading about it in a volume from the Time-Life Science series published at that time. The proposal is simple- a remotely controlled, robotic vacuum-cleaner/grinder that pumps the resulting sludge to a surface collection tanker.

Unfortunately, this says nothing to the engineering hurdles that would have to be surpassed in order to build and operate such a machine at such depth and pressure -much less the damage to the resident abyssal ecosystem.

Essentially, this scheme appears to be another exploitive, likely poorly-regulated resource rape, a la petro/mining. The Tragedy of the Commons repeated, only this time far away and almost entirely out of sight.

Same thing could be accomplished through the method of seawater filtration and fractionation of mineral slurry, and probably for about the same cost.

3.7 / 5 (6) Oct 07, 2010
And here we see the difference between theory and practice. It is all economics.
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 07, 2010
Well when we run out of the accesible ones, we will HAVE to go after the inaccesible ones. Either here in the Oceans or out in space. Or both. Whining about how we kill each other down here isn't going to solve the problem, it just diverts our attention from what is important. GETTING to the resources and getting them back here where we can use them.

It's a fact: There are limitless resources out there.

If we just cry and moan about them running out down here and never get out there and get them, we deserve to die out as a species. Fact: We can go there, it's possible but expensive. Fact: We can gather resources, they are out there. Fact: We have the technology now to do all of this, it's just freaking expensive as hell. Fact: As expensive as it may be, we can do it. It's not that we CAN'T do it, it's (again) just expensive as hell. Fact: If we die out because we didn't go out there, it's because of a lack of will, not ability.
1.7 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2010
it's possible but expensive.

What was the cost of the Columbus Expedition in 1492?

The only way to drive down the costs is to incentivize the endeavor.
The flip side is substitute products will replace expensive materials.
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 07, 2010
The king of France had Aluminium cutlery. Aluminium used to be as costly and valuable as gold.

Not only is the oil industry working at remarkable depths, ever heard of De Beers and the deep sea mining taking place off the coast of Namibia?

Price is the driver of all human effort, anybody who believes anything else is welcome to come and wash my car for free!
4.7 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2010
The total amount of land based resources is equally huge using the same sorts of calculations. However, in practical terms, we need to factor in access ability, cost of extraction, ecological damage, cost of purification, etc. Without those considerations this article is just a bunch of hooey.
4 / 5 (2) Oct 07, 2010
Terrible news! Shorting silver immediately
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2010
What happens when we start fighting over the resources in the oceans.
1 / 5 (2) Oct 10, 2010
you are an idiot if you are shorting silver or gold. Silver is definitely undervalued relative to the price of gold.
1 / 5 (2) Oct 10, 2010
If we can pull oil from 18000 feet under the sea floor in a mile of water, we can scrape some minerals off of some rocks on the ocean floor. The oil industry already has the technology, it just needs some modification.
3.4 / 5 (5) Oct 14, 2010
"I think there's real risk if we don't really carefully, and in a credible way, articulate that there are enough resources for everybody," he added. "We don't have to fight over these things."

It's not really the supply that's the biggest problem. The larger issue is how we split it all up and who gets to decide how we do it. Who gets the most, etc. It's really about power and the right to decide how things will be. I could be wrong here, but I don't think physical resources are the primary motivation for the majority of wars.

There's also the problem of distribution and whether people can afford a resource. For example, the people of Somolia can't afford to provide themselves with fresh water, which is certainly a resource in great supply in some places.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2010
there isnt a resorce problem - its all an illusion - its masses of people living in citys - fly in a plane - swaiths of land and sea = everthing is now made to break - we stopped 30 yrs ago - consumarism - held back tech - its supply and demand - its corparations - banks who create money in computers - controling countries through meadia - sheep forgeting that this is one planet - were told by leaders - who are fat and rich - gettin the back rub in saunas and gettin the monkey masses to say we we we - then like every leader that gets in power suddenly becomes the same cycle - the whole planet is asleep - if you got the best engineer and scientist to create somthing - they could - we av the tech we have the knowlage - people would volenteer - its people following people who want them to be like them - its monky money ego greed of the planet - were still being nurtured and educated to fit and accept this created world system

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