This deposit of mud from a Japanese island could be home to a “semi-infinite” trove of rare earth minerals
It’s not something that’s very well-known, but the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean is home to copious amounts of rare earth minerals that could power our tech-centric lives for centuries to come.
Last week, scientists from Waseda University, the University of Tokyo and the Japan Agency for Marine Science and Technology announced the discovery of more than 16 million tonnes of that mineral-rich mud off an island in the Pacific Ocean. But is it really worth getting excited about?
The mud, which lies near Minamitorishima Island and 1,850km off the coast of Japan, has been found to have 17 of the rare earth minerals that are used in technological devices today. According to the paper published in Nature Scientific Reports, the minerals inside the mud contain 780 years’ worth of yttrium, 620 years’ worth of europium, 420 years’ worth of terbium and 780 years of dysprosium. These rare Earth minerals are used in things like smartphones, camera lenses, superconductors, hybrid vehicles, missile systems and radar devices. Yttrium, for example, is used in radiation therapy to treat cancer, while Terbium is used to help create electricity.
Even though the deposit is far away from Japan itself, the country still technically owns the mud in that region, and Minamitorishima Island is still considered to be a part of Japan.
Rare earth minerals aren’t in fact all that rare. They can be found in abundance in the Earth’s crust, albeit more widely dispersed. They are mainly rare because they’re so incredibly difficult to extract. There are only a few safe rare earth mineral mines, and most of them are based in China.
“This is a game-changer for Japan,” Jack Lifton, co-founder of Technology Metals Research told the Wall Street Journal. “The race to develop these resources is well underway.”
There’s just one problem. Sure, it’s a big deal to have the deposits of these rare earth minerals gather in such a confined, concentrated space, but the mud sits 6km below the ocean. Frankly, that’s going to be hard to reach. And we haven’t yet taken into account how difficult it is to process.
While the scientists outline a method to process the mud through a hydrocycle and centrifugal forces, as The Verge reports, this method is unproven.
The typical way of processing rare earth minerals is long and gruelling. Rare earth minerals need to be dissolved in acid hundreds of times, with the concentration of acid needing to be recalculated for each mining area thanks to impurities in the soil. The process also produces radioactive chemical byproducts.
“Nobody has ever done it before and no-one has proven it can work at an industrial scale,” Professor Frances Wall of the Exeter University’s Camborne School of Mines told The Verge. “There have been literally hundreds of exploration projects [that have found rare earth metals] and they’ve not been able to go forward through production because they can’t prove they’ll make any money.”
While yes, technically, the scientists could provide the world a “semi-infinite” amount of these rare earth minerals, as they write in the study. Realistically, they’re not going to be able to do so in the next decade or so. And if they are, they’ll have more to think about than just retrieving the deposits, they’ll have to think about a viable extraction method and the environmental impact too.