Modern technology wouldn’t work without trace amounts of bizarrely-named metals that occupy obscure positions on the periodic table. They’re called rare earths, but there’s a near-limitless supply on the ocean floor—if only we could access it. This week, Japanese scientists are reigniting hopes that we’ll be able to soon, but major hurdles remain.
In 2013, deep sea muds containing rare earth elements were discovered off Japan’s Minamitorishima Island. Folks were excited both by the high concentrations of rare earths, and because they’re sitting in mud we can readily scoop up once we’re down there, rather than hard crusts we’d need to blast apart. Now, a team of researchers has followed up on the discovery with additional deep sea scouting trips, plus GIS mapping to extrapolate the total rare earth potential of the region.
And that potential sure is something. Writing Wednesday in Nature Scientific Reports, the researchers estimate the most promising area contains some 1.2 million tons of rare earths. The total rare earth content of the study area? Some 16 million tons, translating to a 730 year supply of dysprosium (used in magnets in wind turbines and electric vehicles), a 420 year supply of terbium (used in lasers and semiconductors) and a nearly 800 year supply of yytrium (radar systems).
As the authors note, this gives the deposit “the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world.”
Folks in the media (and some investors) got very excited over the news. The Wall Street Journal suggested Japan could use the discovery to break China’s stranglehold on the rare earth market and prevent future market shocks. Fortune called it a “monumental discovery.” The South China Morning Post suggested the find “potentially frees Japanese firms from costly foreign mineral imports.”
There’s just one teeny, tiny problem (the same one that always arises when people find exciting new metal deposits on the ocean floor). Deep ocean mining technology doesn’t exist, and it probably won’t for decades.
As John Wiltshire, a prospecting geologist and director of Hawaii’s Undersea Research Lab noted to Earther, if you look at the top 20 largest mining companies globally, none of their websites reference any ocean mining projects. “That’s gotta tell you something,” he said.
While acknowledging that the researchers have found “a very good deposit,” Wiltshire says anyone interested in commercially extracting this stuff is going to need to invest billions developing the tech for scraping, blasting, and cutting the seafloor, hauling the valuable bits thousands of feet up to the surface, and mitigating any environmental impacts (which could be huge).
“It’s just a feat outside the realm of what mining companies are willing to do today,” David Abraham, a senior fellow New America and rare metals expert, told Earther. “It’s just like if we find things on comets and asteroids.”
Meanwhile, Wiltshire said, China is moving to solidify its future monopoly on the rare earth market. State-backed companies are working to secure mining rights and bring new deposits online in Africa and South America that are “guaranteed to drop the price and produce at a loss long enough to clean out any high cost ocean competitors.”
It’s going to need all those metals if it wants to keep dominating the clean energy industry, after all.