American Elephants

Huge Deposits of Rare Earth Minerals Found in Pacific. by The Elephant's Child

Dysprosium, gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium, neodymium, xenotime, cerium and lanthanum are the names of just some of the rare earth minerals that most of us have never heard of, yet are suddenly extremely important.  Rare earths are vital for making a range of high-technology electronics, magnets and batteries.  China accounts for 97 percent of global rare earth supplies and has been tightening the trade in strategic metals and causing an explosion in prices.

Introduction to economics—supply and demand.  When there’s lots of demand and one source controls the supply— they can charge whatever they want.  Conversely — high prices send others looking for more supply.

Unexpectedly — Vast deposits of rare earth minerals have been found on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and can be readily extracted, Japanese scientists said last week.

“The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths.  Just one square kilometer (o.4 square mile for Americans) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption,” said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo.

The team led by Kato and researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology found minerals in sea mud extracted from depths of 3,500 to 6,000 meters (11,500-20,000 feet) below the ocean surface at 78 locations.  One-third of the sites yielded rich contents of rare earths and the metal yttrium. The deposits are in international waters in an area stretching east and west of Hawaii, as well as east of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

Kato estimated rare earths contained in the deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion tonnes, compared to global reserves currently confirmed by the US Geological survey of just 110 million tonnes that have been found mainly in China,Russia and other former Soviet countries and the United States.

Japan accounts for a third of global demand, and  has been looking to diversify their supply sources, particularly of heavy rare earths such as dysprosium used in magnets. “Sea mud can be pumped up from the ocean floor to ships and we can extract rare earths right there using simple acid leaching, and the process is fast,” Kato said.

The sea mud is especially rich in gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium which are used to manufacture flat-screen TVs, LED valves, and hybrid cars.   Here is a visual guide to some rare earth elements that shows how they are used, and what they look like.

I know only slightly more than I did before I heard of these elements, but if I hear someone in conversation mentioning gadolinium, I can smile brightly and say,”Oh yes, rare earths. Used in my flat-screen TV,” That will impress them.


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