Rare-Earth at Sea

Rare-earth” is the term given to a number of exotic minerals that have proven to be essential to the modern electronics industry. Currently, nearly all this material comes from China, but that country has made noises about restricting supply and increasing prices. As a result, geologists have been searching for other sources. The problem is that while these materials are not rare at all, they are so widely dispersed in most areas that it is not practical to try to mine them.

That is why there is a lot of interest in a letter published in the scientific journal, Nature Geoscience. According to the article, Japanese researchers have found high concentrations of rare-earth minerals on the sea floor of the Pacific, including areas near Hawaii. These results are based on a study of more than 2,000 bottom samples, At present, it may be too expensive to retrieve the materials from three miles below the ocean’s surface, but not impossible. Some sources expect it to be a viable industry within 20 years, though there are technical and environmental issues to resolve, as well as determining how to manage the mining rights under international waters.

For now, there are probably ample rare-earth reserves available to be mined in the U.S. and Russia, which provides some protection against price gouging by China, but it could be that the sea floor may provide a significant portion of these materials in the future.