Oceans could yield new sources of rare earth elements

Rare earth elements aren't actually rare, but right now the vast majority of them (97%) come from a single place — China. Given how important these elements are to the making of everything from computers to cars, that gives China quite the monopoly. With that context, here's the news: Japan just found a big supply of rare earth elements in mud at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Of course, what may be good news for manufacturing is not necessarily good news for the health of oceans.


  1. They cannot in good faith call it a “reserve” until they do more drilling which actually establishes the tonnage of this supposed deposit. All of these articles are VERY prospective and optimistic and mostly devoid of real data (most of them reference a single sample of enriched mud). This is just a tiiiiny step away from those press reports by junior mining companies which claim they’ve found a piece of rock with 10% gold (the obvious intention of such reports being to seek more investment). Pulling up a single sample of mud that’s enriched in rare earths is not even close to sufficient evidence to suggest that it might have an effect on China’s monopoly. Even if that mud is like, 10% TREE (total rare earth element content), it means nothing until you know how widespread that 10% TREE mud is. Also, no one has yet demonstrated any viable / economical way of mining the seafloor this deep (as far as I know… my knowledge on this may be outdated).

    You could walk through some places in the Mojave desert and pick up a handful of sand which might have significant rare earth content in it. Again, it means absolutely nothing until you establish how widepsread that sand is (tonnage) and how consistent the grade is.

    I don’t see any data anywhere which would suggest that this is a “big supply” other than optimistic assumption.

  2. The problem with Rare Earths has never been their availability, it has been concentrating them into usable amounts.  China is the world leader in this because their environmental standards are almost completely unenforced and the many many tons of toxic byproduct can be dumped into the environment instead of requiring expensive handling and processing to avoid contaminating groundwater and soil. 

    Gathering the raw material from the sea doesn’t change this much unless you’re willing to exploit the fact that you’re in international waters and dump your wastewater in the ocean directly.  Still, unless you boat is registered in some third world country with no regulations and you have a shady connection somewhere to offload the material this is going to be tricky.

  3. 97 percent of rare earths come from China because someone convinced the Chinese government that market share == monopoly.  So the Chinese are subsidizing production to get market share.  Problem is resource extraction doesn’t work that way.  There are lots of rare earth deposits world wide.  Any attrempt at increasing price, results in new supplies opening up quickly.  One of the problems with rare earths is the ore concentrations are low and tend to contain things like thorium, so most countries actually would prefer the stuff stay in the ground.  And demand that the waste be disposed of properly.  So lack of proper waste disposal is the angle the Chinese are using to out compete other suppliers. j

    1.  China has been screwing around with the rare earth market for years now with a mix of export controls and price manipulation.

      The problem with market based solutions to it is that mines and processing operations are not fast or inexpensive to set up. So any time a competitor gets going, by the time they are actually in production China has pushed the market price below cost. So a new mine that is already in the position of having to pay back startup costs is now running in the red. Six months later china is able to push up prices and use the control as a trade negotiation stick.

  4. Tod Brilliant did an excellent commentary on rare earth minerals ocean mining a while back, involving robots: http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/141325-man-up-it-s-time-to-suck

  5. “what may be good news for -some humans- is not necessarily good news for the health of -nature and most living things-.”

    I’d love to put my 1st gen Droid into a Tansmogrifier and Sproing out a brand spanking new phone of my dreams…Would that I could believe that this MacBook I’m typing on, the black screened Samsung Touch of Color HDTV I’m looking at, will, upon their demise be recycled, reconstituted and reused in the most safe, clean and non-harmful method possible…but facts are facts: it is still easier and cheaper to rip these Special Metals out of the ground (or sea) than break apart what we have already created.

    So someday my throwaway tech will create (developing) jobs via (child) labor and painstakingly extricate said metals for a miniscule fraction of the global market.

    Is that Value Added…or Detracted?

  6. For a view on rare earth mining and the completely artificial barriers in the USA I recommend the video Obama, China, Rare Earths – Can WTO save manufacturing jobs? Why no USA REE? THORIUM. at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MauEg9vqh9k. The US rare earth mines have the problem that slightly radioactive thorium comes along with heavy rare earths. A sane way of handling the thorium – which is no more radioactive when extracted than it was when it was in the ground – would make the USA a supplier of heavy rare earths. No undersea mining needed.

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