Analysis: Experts say Rare Earths Mining Find not Feasible

July 6, 2011 (Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) — Industry experts are skeptical about a report this week by Japanese scientists on the recent discovery of vast deposits of crucial rare earth elements at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The skepticism expressed on Tuesday stems not from disbelief that quantities of rare earths can be found in the Pacific — because they’re not even that rare on land. Experts wonder whether anyone could economically mine the deposits at depths of 2.5 to 3 miles below surface.

The valuable minerals are crucial to the manufacture of electronic products such as smartphones, flat-panel monitors, hybrid cars, wind turbines and military weapons.

“It’s a bunch of garbage propaganda,” Tony Mariano, a seasoned U.S. rare earth geologist, told the Tribune-Review about the research that found the minerals in sea mud at 78 locations in international waters east and west of Hawaii and east of Tahiti.

“There’s no one I know that isn’t laughing,” agreed Tracy Weslosky, chairman of REE World, which follows the industry. “There’s no record to date of anyone mining at that depth. There’s probably gold on Pluto, too.”

“It does sound lovely,” said Byron Hawes, editor of the RareMetalBlog. “But there are lots of questions to be answered.”

Unanswered are questions of ownership in international waters and what to do with the tailings and waste — some of it radioactive — that come from rare-earth mining. Could it be dumped back into the ocean, Hawes asked, or does the radioactive thorium that is a by-product of the mining have to be hauled away on a ship for disposal in a secured location?

“And what are you going to do to the bottom of the ocean?” asked Mariano. “It’s a big, big problem.”

One leader of the nine-member research team said the ocean deposits amount to 80 billion to 100 billion metric tons, compared to the 110 million tons the U.S. Geological Survey says have been found on land. Most of those deposits are in China and Russia and other former Soviet countries, though some are in the United States.

Stanley Trout, director of magnet business at Molycorp Inc., a rare earth company, said it could become possible to get at the rare earth material on the ocean floor, but it would be expensive.

“We didn’t always drill for oil offshore, but we learned how,” he said. “Mining there for rare earths is going to take some time.”

The authors of the report, in a letter to the publication Nature Geoscience, hinted in the report that mining the ocean floor might be a problem:

“Unless the great water depths (mostly 4,000 – 5,000 meters) have a significant impact on the technological and economic viability of mining

on the seafloor, the [rare earth]-rich mud in the Pacific Ocean may constitute a highly promising [rare earth] resource for the future.”

Two decades ago, the Mountain Pass mine in California was the world’s largest producer of rare earth elements. But China began selling cut-rate rare earths abroad, and competitors began to fold. Mountain Pass closed in 2002, but Molycorp plans to resume production there next year.

In 2010, China mined 97 percent of the rare earths in the world. But China has dramatically slowed exports, sending prices skyward and spurring a worldwide scramble to find deposits and begin rebuilding a rare earth manufacturing infrastructure outside the Asian nation.

The World Trade Organization yesterday ruled that China’s restrictions on those and other materials violate international trade law.

Ed Richardson, president of the U.S. Magnetic Materials Association, whose members use rare earths to make magnets, told the Trib he doubts the ruling will have a major impact on China.

“I think they’ll find a way around that,” he said. “They’ll find 20 ways.”