The discovery of
massive deposits of rare-earth metals on the Pacific Ocean floor may, if
properly managed, have considerable long term economic benefits for the
people of the Pacific islands.
At present, China
accounts for 97 per cent of the world's production of 17 rare-earth
elements, which are essential for electric cars, flat-screen TVs, iPods,
superconducting magnets, lasers, missiles, night-vision goggles, wind
turbines and many other advanced products. A new study has suggested however
that China's monopoly over rare-earth metals could be challenged by the
discovery of massive deposits of these hi-tech minerals in thick mud at
great depths on the Pacific floor.
At the moment,
production of rare-earth metals is almost entirely centred on China, which
also has a third of the world's reserves. Another third is held together by
former Soviet Republics, the United States and Australia. These elements
carry exotic names such as neodymium, promethium and yttrium and have
sometimes been dubbed "21st-century gold" for their rarity and value.
is used with various other substrate crystals, such as yttrium aluminium
garnet in the Nd:YAG laser. This laser usually emits infrared waves at a
wavelength of about 1064 nanometers. The Nd:YAG laser is one of the most
commonly used solid-state lasers.
Another chief use of neodymium is as the free pure element. It is used as a
component in the alloys used to make high-strength neodymium magnets – the
most powerful permanent magnets known. These magnets are widely used in such
products as microphones, professional loudspeakers, in-ear headphones, and
computer hard disks, where low magnet mass or volume, or strong magnetic
fields are required. Larger neodymium magnets are used in high power versus
weight electric motors (for example in hybrid cars) and generators (for
example aircraft and wind turbine electric generators).
Promethium is used as a beta radiation source
for thickness gauges. Also as a light source for signals that require
reliable, independent operation (using phosphor to absorb the beta radiation
and produce light). In addition, Promethium is used in an atomic battery in
which cells convert the beta emissions into electric current, yielding a
useful life of about five years.
The most important use of yttrium is in making
phosphors, such as the red ones used in television cathode ray tube displays
and in LEDs. Other uses include the production of electrodes,
electrolytes, electronic filters, lasers and superconductors; various
medical applications; and as traces in various materials to enhance their
properties. Yttrium has no known biological role, and exposure to yttrium
compounds can cause lung disease in humans.
Japanese scientists and geologists studied samples
from 78 sites covering a major portion of the centre-eastern Pacific between
120 and 180 degrees longitude.
Drills extracted more than 2000 sedimentary cores
to depths that in place were more than 50 metres below the sea bed which
were chemically tested for content in rare-earth elements. The scientists
found rich deposits in samples taken more than 2000 kilometres from the
Pacific's mid-ocean ridges. The material had taken hundreds of millions of
years to accumulate, depositing at the rate of less than half a centimetre
per thousand years.
Indeed, the research
suggests that at one site in the central North Pacific, an area of just one
square kilometre could meet a fifth of the world's annual consumption of
rare metals and yttrium.
Lab tests show
the deposits can be simply removed by rinsing the mud with diluted acids, a
process that takes only a couple of hours, and, would not have any
environmental impact so long as the acids are not dumped in the ocean. At
the moment, the question is whether the necessary technology can be put into
place for recovering the mud at such great depths - 4000 to 5000 metres -
and, if so, whether this would be commercially viable.
It is perhaps
worth mentioning that about 30 years ago, a German mining company succeeded
in recovering deep-sea mud from the Red Sea. This suggests that it is
technologically most probably that deep-sea mud in the Pacific region can be
economically developed as a valuable mineral resource with minimal
for mining rare-earth metal from the floor of the vast Pacific Ocean has
largely come about as a consequence of China slashing export quotas,
consolidating the industry and announcing plans to build national reserves,
citing environmental concerns and domestic demand. These moves led to a fall
of 9.3 per cent in China's exports of rare-earth metals, triggering
complaints abroad of strategic hoarding and price-gouging.
Arno Atoll, Republic of the
Laura, Republic of the Marshall
Photos: David R. Huskins
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