Hi-tech future may be saved by ocean floor sediments

Global rare earth element production (1 kt=106...

China's growing REE market share. Image via Wikipedia

Since the now far-off founding of the Club of Rome and the re-emergence of Malthusian ideology, time and again there have been warnings about the imminent running out of resources that are essential for modern life. The latest concern one of the formerly haunted wings of the Periodic Table, central to petrogenetic geochemistry, but little else; the rare-earth elements. From early beginnings as the source for phosphors in the screens of colour televisions all 15 REEs now have a growing commercial role in applications ranging from precision guided weapons, night-vision goggles and stealth technology in the military sphere, through the satiation of artificial appetites for electronic gaming and mobile phones, to applications of super-efficient magnets in medial scanners and ‘green’ power generation. The crisis being discussed currently is not so much a shortage – REEs are not so rare – but the cornering of their mining by the Peoples’ Republic of China, which produces more than 95%  of RREs used at present (~120 thousand tons). Yet world reserves are estimated at almost 100 million t, of which China has 36 million. Mining is often in only a few known, high-grade deposits; for instance most of the US reserves of 13 million t are locked in the Mountain Pass Mine, California that is currently on a ‘care-and-maintenance’ regime, i.e. shut. This one-sided economy sends shudders through capital’s strategy forums, i.e. in the US, Silicon Valley and the Pentagon.

Not surprisingly, geochemists and oceanographers from Japan, the world’s most hi-tech country, have bent their collective will to finding alternative sources, and may have revealed one in an unexpected location (Kato, Y. et al. 2011. Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 535-539).  Their work stems from ‘mining’ existing geochemical data from deep-sea drilling projects on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, that reveal a wide range of REE concentrations in the ooze coating the seabed: from <250 to >2000 parts per million. The richest pickings seem to lie in a swath either side of the East Pacific Rise at around 15°S, where the group estimate that a 1 km2 plot could yield about one fifth of current world annual production, even though REE concentrations lie way below their on-shore economic cut-off grade. Apart from the need for dredging at depths around 3-5 km on the abyssal plains, and the inevitability of destroying a largely unknown ecosystem, the positive aspect of these metal-rich oozes is that the REE can be extracted simply by acid leaching of the goethite (FeOOH) in which the bulk of the elements reside. Goethite is something of a geochemical ‘mop’ with a capacity for adsorbing elements of all kinds on grain surfaces; so much so that it is being considered as a means of cleaning up heavy-metal pollution. Both the REEs and the iron probably arise from seabed hot springs where oxidising conditions result in dissolved ferrous iron combining in ferric form with oxygen to form goethite, which in turn scavenges other dissolved ions. Many of the on-shore REE deposits are carbonatites (intrusions of carbonate-rich magmas) that contain fluoro-carbonates and phosphates that host the REE, or beach sands in which wave swash concentrates the durable heavy phosphates in so-called black-sand deposits. Carbonatites are rare, most occurring in ancient ‘shields’, as in southern Africa, Canada and China, but being so unusual are not difficult to find.  One in the Canadian Shield known as the Big Spruce Lake deposit provides phosphorus- and potassium-rich soil that encourages the growth f conifers and so creates a geobotanical anomaly of large trees where local climate generally supports only stunted ones.

The rising demand and currently restricted supply of REEs is creating an exploration boom for carbonatites as the metal prices rise inexorably. Yet it may also produce a shift to what seems to be an alternative kind of source; iron-rich deep-sea sediments, though more likely those preserved on-shore in ophiolite complexes than at the huge depths of the abyssal plains. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that oceanographers and geochemists have pointed to untold metal riches before: manganese nodules that litter huge tracts of the seabed and contain sufficient copper, nickel and cobalt to maintain supplies for millennia. Despite a half-billion dollar investment in the 1960s and 70s, there is no nodule-dredging industry. There are however well-advanced plans for deep water mining of gold-rich hydrothermal sites, but miners will go just about anywhere to gloat over Marx’s ‘money commodity’


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