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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.

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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.
More specifically: 
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 environmental damage.

The impetus 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.

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Arno Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands

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Laura, Republic of the Marshall Islands
Photos: David R. Huskins


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Trees in the midst of the sea - Tarawa, Kiribati


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