Deep-Sea Mud

Uptake of rare-earth elements and yttrium by mineral phases such as hydrothermal iron-oxyhydroxides and phillipsite seems to be responsible for their high concentration. We show that rare-earth elements and yttrium are readily recovered from the mud by simple acid leaching, and suggest that deep-sea mud constitutes a highly promising huge resource for these elements.

The BBC is reporting this morning on a Japanese research report finding masses of rare earth elements plus yttrium, in deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean. According to the nine researchers heading up the report, the world could be saved from Chinese exploitation in the REE sector, where they supply up to 97% of global REE demand, by mining this newly discovered supply of non Chinese REEs.

Below, the article that’s  muddying up today’s REE sector.

Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements
Nature Geoscience Year published:(2011)
Received 05 January 2011 Accepted 19 May 2011 Published online 03 July 2011

World demand for rare-earth elements and the metal yttrium—which are crucial for novel electronic equipment and green-energy technologies—is increasing rapidly. Several types of seafloor sediment harbour high concentrations of these elements. However, seafloor sediments have not been regarded as a rare-earth element and yttrium resource, because data on the spatial distribution of these deposits are insufficient. Here, we report measurements of the elemental composition of over 2,000 seafloor sediments, sampled at depth intervals of around one metre, at 78 sites that cover a large part of the Pacific Ocean. We show that deep-sea mud contains high concentrations of rare-earth elements and yttrium at numerous sites throughout the eastern South and central North Pacific. We estimate that an area of just one square kilometre, surrounding one of the sampling sites, could provide one-fifth of the current annual world consumption of these elements.

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To me, it’s too early to say how practical mining this new resource might be, or even if it’s practical, what the associated cost basis might be, even before we get into issues like environmental harm to the Pacific Ocean. I suspect that any environmental harm would be very localised in a massive ocean  like the Pacific. I also note from the timeline, that this research report was submitted back in January, and was therefore research undertaken at the latest in 2010. My suspicion, therefore, is that this new development would have been widely known in Japanese industry, and judging by Japanese firms reaction all year, that they were underwhelmed by news of this discovery.

While skeptical that this new resource will be mined any time soon, if ever, it is good to know that if we build an ever more technology driven world based on scarce REE resources, there is at least a backup  supply available under the sea. I suspect that our media reporting of this research is running ahead of itself.