Ocean Floor Muddies China’s Grip on Valuable Rare-Earth Minerals

Tuesday, July 05, 2011
Rare-earth oxides
China’s monopoly over rare-earth minerals—used in flat-screen TVs, energy-saving lightbulbs, hybrid cars and missile guidance systems—may be coming to an end now that news out of Japan indicates a large swath of the Pacific Ocean floor contains high concentrations of the minerals.
Researchers from the University of Tokyo and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology lifted core samples of ocean mud from the bottom of the Pacific and found huge deposits of rare earth minerals. Before the discovery, scientists estimated there were about 110 million tons of rare earth minerals available, mostly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries.
China’s mining of the highly valuable minerals has allowed it to control 97% of the market. Recent skyrocketing prices have been a source of friction between China and its trade partners.
Now, it is estimated the Pacific Ocean sits atop 80 to 100 billion metric tons of the minerals. Separating the minerals from the mud is relatively simple, scientists say. But getting to the mud could be challenging because the extractions would have to take place at depths of 11,500 to 20,000 feet below the surface.
The deposits reside in international waters, stretching east and west of Hawaii, as well as east of Tahiti in French Polynesia.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
Ocean Floor Muddies China's Grip on '21st-Century Gold' (by Richard Ingham, Agence France-Presse)
Solution to the Rare Earth Problem Could Come from the Sea (by Harufumi Mori and Dai Narusawa, Asahi)
U.S. Weapons Systems Dependent on Rare Earth Elements from China (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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