A new Scientific Reports paper has got plenty of people incredibly excited about some mud sitting within the western North Pacific Ocean. Why? Well, it turns out there’s “tremendous potential” for vast reserves of rare-earth elements (REEs) within deep-sea mud there, just offshore from Minamitorishima Island, after an expedition in 2013 ventured there and poked around a bit.
At this point, I can hear you wondering aloud: REEs – what are they good for? Well, from dysprosium and neodymium to promethium, quite a lot, as it so happens. If you’ve ever got electricity from a wind turbine, hopped inside a hybrid car, used anything with a light-emitting diode (LED), or used a rechargeable battery, then you know how vital they are to the working of daily life in the modern era.
REEs, generally speaking, are fairly plentiful within the Earth’s crust, just as they are in various other celestial objects, including asteroids. They don’t occur evenly across the planet, though, which is why some countries – notably China – have dominated the global market for some time now. This new discovery, then, is understandably big news for investors as well as scientists.
The researchers, led by Waseda University, estimated that there’s around 16 million tonnes of REEs (plus another related element, yttrium) lost at sea off the teeny atoll. One particularly rich segment of the muddy treasure trove alone contains 1.2 million tonnes of the good stuff. It contains enough europium to satiate the world’s needs for 47 years at the current rate of demand; similarly, there’s enough dysprosium to keep industry happy for 56 years.
Extrapolating this to the entire 2,500-square-kilometer (965-square-mile) zone is where the 16 million tonne figure comes from, which could possibly hold several centuries' worth of REEs. The authors describe the submerged region as a “semi-infinite” source in which to supply the world.
The fact that this was discovered beside this tiny, incredibly isolated coral atoll – the easternmost territory belonging to Japan, by all accounts – is great news for the archipelagic Japanese nation. The waters aren’t disputed at all, which means all of these precious REEs fall within their Exclusive Economic Zone.
However, the language of the study is worth highlighting. As the authors note, the area “has great potential as ore deposits for some of the most critically important elements in the modern society.” Why would they say potential, rather than go with something more definitive?
Well apart from the fact that the larger numbers are estimates, it’s not yet clear how you’d extract it in the first place.
REEs are extracted up on the surface world. The problem is that there currently is no method in existence that will enable commercial mining of the seafloor in a general sense.
As noted by the Guardian back in 2017, the first test of any such mining is going to take place in 2019. In this case, it won’t be REEs, but copper, zinc, and gold that’ll be the target. As is the case with workable nuclear fusion, this is an endeavor that’s been around the corner for about half a century now, so it’s anyone’s guess as to when it’ll properly kick off.
Right now, then, this zone is like a treasure chest without a key to open it.