Australian Network News
18 July 2012
Mining companies and manufacturers are hoping the recent discovery of rare-earth elements deep in the Pacific Ocean could help break a Chinese monopoly.
Rare earth elements are crucial for technologies including smartphones, hybrid cars, missiles and wind turbines, and it’s thought that China holds about half of the world’s reserves.
In recent years China has moved to limit global supply – citing environmental concerns and a desire to develop their own high-technology sector – which has increased trade tensions and pushed up prices.
Professor Brent McInnes, Director of the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research at Western Australia’s Curtin University, has told Radio Australia’s Asia Pacific program recent discoveries off Japan and in the Pacific will be a source of interest for companies looking to explore new frontiers.
“This new finding of rare earth elements will be interesting, because some of the companies that were looking for copper and gold-rich systems may now be looking for rare earth elements as a potential ore,” he said.
Among the more recent discoveries of deep-sea rare earth deposits was several thousand kilometres off the coast of Tokyo, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
By one estimate it could hold as much as 6.8 million tons of rare earths, which could supply Japan’s consumer electronics and hybrid car industries for more than 200 years.
Large concentrations were also found in areas of the eastern South Pacific and near Hawaii.
But the potential for Pacific Island nations to exploit these reserves is less certain, according to Professor McInnes.
“The limited data that’s available shows most of the rare earth elements are in the deepest water depths or 4,000 or 5,000 metres deep and these are far away from the island countries themselves,” he said.
“It is possible that they’re within their exclusive economic zones, but I think most of this area would probably be in areas which are not claimed by any of the island nations.”
Deep-sea mining is still largely experimental and the potential environmental impacts are difficult to measure.
Many species have not even been identified yet on the sea floors, so that means that many species could become extinct before they’re even really discovered.
– Dr Helen Rosenbaum, Deep Sea Mining Campaign
There is concern that mining around mineral rich volcanic vents could harm the unique sea life common to these sites.
Dr Helen Rosenbaum heads the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, whose focus is the world’s first commercial deep sea mining project off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
“The direct impacts are about the destruction of the area that’s going to be mined,” she said.
“This is the destruction of these amazing vent formations and their unique eco-systems.
“Many species have not even been identified yet on the sea floors, so that means that many species could become extinct before they’re even really discovered.”
Professor Brent McInnes believes the depths of the rare earth deposits and their apparent distance from volcanic vents could lessen the impacts on the undersea environment.
“These rare earth element muds are in the deepest part of the ocean, where there is extremely low biodiversity,” he said.
“If you were to do a camera scan of some of these areas, you’d see it was a desert like environment.