back to article Pacific rare-earth discovery: Actually just gigatonnes of dirt

There has been a lot of excitement over a recent paper by Japanese researchers who have discovered billions – hundreds of billions – of tonnes of rare earths under the Pacific Ocean. Those rare earths, you will recall, are essential to so much of modern technology, from those sweet little earbuds of your iPod and the magnets in …


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  1. Steve the Cynic

    Like the gunk on the roads.

    A few years back, I read somewhere that on today's roads, the dirt is almost (within a factor of about ten) sufficiently concentrated to become platinum ore. The source of the platinum? Catalytic converters. Little bits of platinum (the actual catalyst) break off the interior and depart via the exhaust tailpipe. They land on the road surface, and get mixed in with the assorted gunk that's already there.

    Apparently, it was, at the time, only about a tenth of the concentration of platinum in marginal-quality ore.

    1. Tim Worstal

      Moving on

      There's a post-grad at Brum Uni who thinks that the concentration is now high enough to mine. She's trying to work out how to separate the particularate matter (the soot etc, which is where the platinum will be) from all the other gunk swept up off the roads.

      She might even manage it too.

      1. Heff

        It'd make an interesting change to roadsweepers

        I know the paper doesn't seem worth much, but if you look at it on a nice-to-note-for-the-future basis, its awfully handy. If someone comes along and says "oh, how about you make, I don't know, some kind of giant hoover, that ducts straight into this seawater-filled, magnet-lined centrifuge*, and that takes your mud from 2000ppm to 200,000ppm, and also we get to squirt off a bunch of other high-concentration-of-x mixes then we're good.

        the thing about ore mining, and processing, and all that primary-producer malarkey is you can run a very successful business on a very narrow profit margin : if you shift enough material. What the report says is "the material is here. lots of it. fucking bajillions of tons, right here" whilst the current "wash it with fuckloads of acid" doesnt really appeal for now, a lot of scientific and industrial progress isnt made in a straight line; its a game of engineering hangman, where the blanks get filled until someone realises that MON_Y is only lacking one letter, and then they win the prize.

        a bloody big, rare-metal siltbed is a letter. a couple more, and you might just see a new industry flourish out of bloody nowhere.

        *people with more Engineerspeak can come up with a better lie here.

    2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      Also similarly

      I also read that landfil sites in US of A contain aluminium concentrations (drink cans) higher than that found in bauxite mines, and has a much lower cost to refine. However there are probably lots of other things among the cans that makes it dangerous to go looking through!

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge


        I heard Peter Mills of New Earth Solutions on Radio 4 who suggested that we should mine the plastics from landfill sites, if only to use them as a fuel, although he actually suggested re-using them, and only burning them when they could no longer be recycled.

        I think that we need to examine how disadvantaged people in developing countries pick over their landfill sites to get every bit of useful material, down to the tins, bottles and plastic bags. It's not nice, but it gives these people a way of generating some money out of nothing, while reducing what is in the landfill to just the worthless waste.

        I'm not suggesting that we should force people into a scavenger class (although bog knows, making the long term unemployed do this once in a while might teach them something valuable about their benefits), but it is clear that there are lessons that we 'superior western' countries could learn from our less fortunate cousins.

      2. ravenviz Silver badge

        Mining landfill sites

        I've thought for years this should be a viable option for the future. Landfill makes a lot more sense than dumping at sea because you can get back at it later when economically viable to do so (well both have an economical case but landfill mining would be cheaper).

      3. Zippy the Pinhead

        @ BristolBachelor

        Bauxite is one of the most common minerals on the planet. The cost does not come from mining but from the incredible amount of electricity needed to release the mineral from the ore itself.

        I hate seeing anything thrown away because of our disposable society.. we should always attempt to recycle when we can... It needs to be cheap and effective.. such as mechanical sorting our trash before its compacted into our landfills.. sorting the trash at the landfill can remove items like plastic and metals for recycling and leaving a larger amount of organics to decompose into methane.

        1. Tim Worstal

          Not entirely so

          There's two stages: bauxite to alumina, crush the bauxite and boil in caustic soda. Then turn the alumina into aluminium. It's that second stage that takes $900 worth (ish) of 'leccie per tonne. First stage costs perhaps $100 all in (ish).

        2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          Zippy the Pinhead Re: methane

          Bearing in mind how much of a greenhouse gas methane actually is, it would be better to put the organics into a digester, extract the methane, and burn it as a fuel. It would then be the less damaging CO2 and water, and we would have gotten some useful energy from it, and what eventually goes into the landfill would be less of a hazard.

      4. dssf

        Dangerous stuff in landfills

        Mite/cockroach/bed-bug-laden mattresses, unexploded ordnance, contagious hypo (or, hehe, HYPER)demic needles, corpses, suitcases full of cash, unopened winter holiday gifts, jagged cans, broken glass.... You'd probably need a smelting and sifting and toxic gas filtration system that even the assimilating Borg would envy and add to their own technology base, hehehe

        Step in there and fall, you won't be aSSIMIlated... you could end up assIMMOlAted with all the skin/lung-burning acids and gases in there.

      5. foo_bar_baz

        Mining landfills

        This sort of stuff is considered, but sorting and recycling household waste is a commie plot that threatens our freedom.

  2. EyeCU

    Just not valuable yet

    I would say that knowing the location of these deposits is useful. Finite resources are just that - they will run out. It might not be financially viable yet to extract them, but when existing supplies begin to run out we already know where to find more and because of the value of a disappearing resource increases dramatically it would then be viable to extract them. It's much better to know where you can find more when you need to well in advance rather than have a mad panic trying to locate more when supplies are already low.

    1. Mark 65


      But would it be more financially viable to setup better recycling rather than sift silt? I'd have thought so myself but I have no knowledge in this area.

      1. EyeCU

        I agree

        Recycling more would be a good start, however demand is likely to keep climbing and more will be needed. Take electric cars for example. If they are to replace petrol powered ones then much more lithium will be required. I read a report (don't know how true it is) that says if every car currently in use was replaced by an electric one, we wouldn't have enough lithium to provide all the batteries needed and so new sources of it needed to be found and here they are!

    2. Graham Marsden
      Thumb Up


      There are now people who are extracting gold and other ores from tailings which, when they were initially dug, weren't financially viable to bother about.

      Now that the seams are played out and others are much harder to extract it becomes worthwhile to start dealing with what was originally thrown away as "rubbish".

    3. ravenviz Silver badge

      Re:Just not valuable yet

      Finite resources are just that - finite. They do not have to run out of recycled properly.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @ravenviz: Anything finite can run out!

        Let's assume there's enough Lithium on the planet to make 10 million electric car batteries.

        And we want to have 11 million of them at the same time. Tough - you ran out.

        It doesn't matter how good you are at recycling, if you need more of a given product than there are materials to make it, you can't do it.

        Not to menton that eventually we'll run out of ways to increase entropy - there's no way to recycle that.

  3. jjoelw


    We can all rest assured, the writer of this article won't try to get rich off these deposits. That's a relief.

    Oh, wait, I was reading the news. Why am I supposed to care about this? Is it or is it not possible for this to work? If, with enough money, as stated, it is possible, why the negative, long-winded article to (mostly) the contrary?

    1. Tim Worstal

      So, umm

      The point of mentioning my own adventures in trying to extract from something very similar is to point out that, having tried something very similar, I couldn't make it work economically. Therefore, I don't think this will work economically.

      Note, we could certainly get the rare earths if we spent enough money. But "enough" in this case is more than the rare earths are worth. Thus, while we can do it, not sensible to do it.

      1. Some Beggar

        If Worstall can't do it then nobody can, goshdarnit!

        "The point of mentioning my own adventures in trying to extract from something very similar is to point out that, having tried something very similar, I couldn't make it work economically. Therefore, I don't think this will work economically."


        You should submit this to the OED for when they update the entry for 'hubris'.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          I wouldn't say hubris

          I'd say that this Tim guy knows far more about rare earth extraction techniques then your average media hack or man in the street.

          Or indeed your average commentard.

          Or me, for that matter.

          1. Some Beggar

            @Richard 12

            "I'd say that this Tim guy knows far more about rare earth extraction techniques then your average media hack or man in the street."

            No doubt. But what Tim is actually saying in that quote is that he knows far more about it than all the experts involved in the research and the three highly respected academic institutions where they are based. Which is the very definition of hubris.

            It's always a sign of a weak messageboard when a post gets multiple down votes but no material responses.

            1. Tim Worstal

              No, not quite

              The paper comes from geoscientists: not mining or extraction experts. In one BBC interview (or report of one) the lead author makes the point that he's no idea whether this is economic or not.

              I do say I know more about the extraction of rare earths from this sort of material than geoscientists, yes. But only because this is actually my field: to the point that papers (proper, scientific, peer reviewed stuff) that look at methods of extracting rare earths from these sorts of materials have been known to say "as Worstall reports".

              Plus the fact that I've spent tens of thousands on getting scientists to check the methods by which you might extract rare earths from these sorts of materials.

              I'll agree that there are huge swathes of the world that I know nothing at all about. This specific one is one where I'm alarmingly well informed.

              1. Some Beggar

                @Tim Worstall

                Do you have some citations?

                No offence intended, but Google Scholar (PBUH) doesn't bring up any academic papers either with you as a contributer or citing you as an expert. It does bring up quite a few references to you as a blogger, as does a vanilla Google search.

                You made a straightforward statement that your inability to make a success of something demonstrates that it can't be done.

    2. SkippyBing

      People like you are why the economy is fucked...

      Yes, it would be possible with enough money to extract rare earth metals from the sea floor. In fact with enough money pretty much anything is possible. However if it costs you $4 Million to get $2 worth of rare earth metals you'd be better of doing something else with that money, like giving it to me you can have my car or something.

      Why should you care, well it's putting the original press release into context, i.e. just because the University of Fukushima* says there's lots of rare earth metals on the ocean floor it doesn't follow you should go and buy shares in Pacific Mineral Extraction Inc. or think we've solved the problem of how to make all the nice shiney tech that relies on the limited supplies of that sort of thing.

      If that's all to complicated for you I have 2000 shares in Pacific Mineral Extraction Inc you can have for $2500.

      *Not necessarily the originating body of the research

    3. Notas Badoff


      "Why am I supposed to care about this?"

      Because one particular country may or may not be playing around with choking the present supply of said industrially important elements. So unless you were reading this article off an incised granite stele, you should care.

      "Is it or is it not possible for this to work?"

      Yes, it is possible. Given enough cause/reasons/necessity, another particular country, mentioned in the article, would like that first country to know that they won't just lie down. Coal to oil and all that.

      "If, with enough money, as stated, it is possible, why the negative, long-winded article to (mostly) the contrary?"

      Oh dear, because of the interesting questions raised in less pedestrian minds? Is this really international politics written in the dust? When does the impractical become necessity? What happens when a strategically important resource is not within your borders? Would Japanese ships mysteriously sink while Chinese subs "were not _anywhere_ near there!" Would Greenpeace take the heat? Who will be first out with "Earthly Concerns", Dan Brown or Tom Clancy?

    4. David Dawson

      China/ media panic

      They (read, mainstream, often panic driven, media) always tag in the line about china producing 97% of the worlds rare earth metals; all the articles I read about this went on to speculate that this could provide a way for the free countries of the world (insert your definition of such here) to reduce their reliance on chinese rare earths.

      Never mind the fact that there are significant deposits elsewhere in the world (eg, the US) that have been mined in the past, but are no longer because they are not economically viable at the moment.

      For as long as China/ anywhere can produce these minerals at significantly below the cost of other places, setting up a mine in those places will be a political decision, not an economic one.

      I think the author was pointing out that this is not going to be a cheap solution to the political problem of the concentration of rare earth metal production in china; the general media, on the other hand, speculated that it would.

    5. quartzie


      You, sir, appear to have completely missed the main point Tim Worstall was making. He never said getting the rare earths is technically impossible, just that it is - at this time - utterly economically unfeasible.

      Not only would it take more money to extract the rare earths at the detected concentration than their current worth on the market, but you also have to deal with the byproduct - billions of tons of acidic silt.

      Dumping them into the sea would bring any and all Greenpeace armour to the mining site with destruction of mining equipment on their minds.

      Therefore, unless China completely cuts the rest of the world off their rare earths supplies, causing their prices to skyrocket, there is no way to make money off that silt.

      Anybody attempting to do so would need to find a lot more valuables in the dirt - perhaps not just rare earths.

    6. Daniel 1


      He seems to think that seafloor massive sulphides are in someway similar to the stuff you can dig out of ponds, rather being very similar to the actual stuff that is dug up out of mines* - and often has significantly higher metal content, with more than enough basic lead, copper and zinc in the mix to justify the extraction of the rest.

      Japan is especially motivated to find alternative sources of rare earths because China has already used the threat of withholding its supplies of rare earths to exert political pressure on it, once, over a territorial dispute. World price of a economically vital resource is little use to you when the supplier is openly refusing to sell to you.

      *(being of virtually the same origin, in most cases, since many terrestrial mining sites were once seafloor smokers)

      1. Tim Worstal


        The rest of it seems to be mostly Fe and Al2O3 (from the original paper) and that makes it even more like the red mud that we're already not processing.

        The "ponds" I'm talking about BTW are the waste ponds from a previous mineral extraction process. Not just the pond in the village green.

    7. Svantevid

      Isn't it obvious?

      "If, with enough money, as stated, it is possible, why the negative, long-winded article to (mostly) the contrary?"


      Because you would need much, much more money to extract and refine the ore than is its value.

      If you want an example, it's possible - with enough money - to extract lignite from undersea deposits. Care to pay, say, 5.000 euro for a kilo of coal? Because that's how much it would cost to extract it.

    8. Joe 35

      "if, with enough money, as stated, it is possible ..."

      "....why the negative, long-winded article?"

      For the bleedin' obvious reason you'd spend more money extracting the metals, than they are worth, DUH !

  4. Dr Dan Holdsworth

    Bioconcentration is the thing here...

    The only way to get hold of these rare earth metals is going to be by bio-concentrating them, and this is going to require explicitly engineered extremophile bacteria which can tolerate extremely acidic conditions and pull the minerals out of solution, and bind them into some form of biomolecule. It would also be helpful in the extreme if the biomolecule or the bacterium did something useful, like float on the top of a solution pond so that the slimy gunge with the metals in could be easily collected.

    The interesting thing here is that this is not a list of impossible demands; there exists all the components needed to engineer such an organism. The only real stumbling-block here is legislative; most sane countries don't let you release genetically engineered bacteria out into the environment without strict licencing.

    So, expect this sort of thing to kick off in China or Russia very, very soon...

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    The problem with optimising is ...

    ... that a competitor might just sell at a dollar or two below the alternative ocean floor projected price.

    Once decision has been made to cancel open floor minerals, the optimiser can up price and so forth in a seesawing manner.

    To be doubly embarrassing the optimiser might wait until lots of research costs, equipment costs da-de-dah have been spent and production goes online. Optimiser drops price by 90% knowing that purchasing decisions will leave the new supplier with incredible debt.

    Ah capitalism?

    Doncha jus luv it?

  6. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

    Here are the present winners..

    Quest recently "unearthed" (pardon the pun) a very rich heavy rare earth metals deposit in Canada - it's so big it's got complete nations fighting over it.

    I find it interesting that the BBC report about this find also repeats this 97% figure - it is simply not correct if you take the market as a whole. They have 97% of light, but only 1..2% of heavy rare earth metals, and the entire planet seems to be involved in keeping it that way..

    If you're interested, Quests's site has some interesting pictures about the whole exploration side of things. It seems exploration (the stage before mining) is an interesting trade in itself.

    That is, if you don't have a social life - this stuff can happen at seriously remote places..

    Declaration of interest: there is none, I just met their CEO once at an event dinner. I'm not into exploration or metal trading, but it's always cool to learn about how things work :-).

  7. Mr Templedene

    That's simply a matter

    of economics, if the price of rare earths goes high enough, the dirt becomes ore.

    But it seems there are easier sources to exploit first, the red mud mentioned for example.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice article

    particularly enjoyed the definition of ore vs dirt - cool that it can be an accounting/arithmetical thing.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    This story sounds awfully like all the excitement over manganese nodules in the 1960s and 70s.

    For those of tender years; huge areas of the deep ocean are covered with potato-shaped chunks of manganese ore which geologists (being ever creative) called manganese nodules. So in the 1960s everyone got excited that we'd never run out of manganese...

    ...apart from no one knew how to get the nodules to the surface or to refine them economically, and then we realised we weren't running out of manganese any time soon. Which was good, because any attempt to trawl them from the ocean bottom would have been an ecological catastrophe.

  10. M. Burns Silver badge

    Hughes Glomar Explorer

    So what's the problem? Just use the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The thing was built in 1973-74 to do exactly this, except at the time, they were going after extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor.

    Oh, wait! That was just the cover....

  11. Ray 8


    Given the environmental record of Japanese firms, I wonder what will happen to the acid and red mud.

    Waiting for a response from Greenpeace on this issue

  12. Adrian Esdaile

    Failing to learn from previous hoaxes?

    Not "Manganese Nodules" again!

    That's 'Manganese' spelled R-U-S-S-I-A-N S-U-B.

    I can remember picture books from my youth in the mid 70's that had fantastic illustrations of sea-bed mining of all those nodules; shame it all just turned out to be a shaggy dog story from the CIA.

    I seem to recall you can also get gold from seawater in theory, too.

    Perhaps spend the money on an asteroid mining mission, and find a nice juicy metallic asteroid that will supply us for a couple of centuries? Probably has a better chance of returning a profit; and might not totally fuck up a large patch of ocean, as I am sure this mining would.

  13. John Savard

    Even If It Were Ore

    I thought that since mischmetal, used in lighter flints, is cheap and common, there was no problem with China having a monopoly on the raw mineral - so new sources of the mineral won't have any impact. The real problem is that the separation of the different rare earth metals from one another - since they're very similar chemically - is difficult and awkward. Almost - but, fortunately, not quite - as bad as separating different isotopes of the same element. And only China has the installed plant to do this at the moment.

    So building facilities to refine rare-earth metals is what has to be done. Finding new sources of ore is irrelevant.

    1. Tim Worstal


      You're right, I'm certain I've made that very point here on El Reg myself in fact.....

      1. John Savard

        No Doubt

        You doubtless have, and perhaps even in that very article. But I felt it bore repeating, because I saw that point omitted in so many reports of this story in conventional newspapers.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    other deposits

    There are vast rare earth element deposits in the US, but with a fixed Chinese yuan against the dollar, coupled with cheap Chinese labor, the US ore deposits have become dirt. The gov't and military are interested in reopening the US mines, which would be vastly cheaper that undersea extraction.

  15. david 12 Silver badge

    Manganese Nodules on the sea floor

    There was a lot of interest in mining sea-floor manganese nodules in the '70s. It never worked out, but it did provide a cover story for Project Azorian, the "mining project" that was actually an attempt to recover part of a lost Russian nuclear missile submarine.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hold On...

    This is exactly the argument used for not mining shale for oil 30 years ago, when it was 18 USD a barrel.

    When a barrel passed the 70USD mark, the economics changed somewhat.

    So, assuming our penchant for rare earths isn't going to deminish anytime soon, at wat point WOULD it become economically viable to dump massive quantities of acid in the oceans so we can continue to buy a new iFeun every six months ?

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Another South Sea Bubble?

    Who gains (other than the promoters)?

  18. Tom 7

    Simple techniques...

    It may be that there is a simple technique (oil flocculation/centrifuging - or more likely some cheap but very nasty pollutant) that can increase the rare earth concentration to a much more usable level in situ.

    This could very cheaply be put into a large underwater vehicle and we could seriously fuck up a previously untouched part of our environment.

    I say cheaply - when you consider you don’t have to move millions of tons of rock and hold a very heavy roof up to get to it it looks a pretty good option.

    All a company needs to do is find some way of patenting an obvious part of it to keep out the competition and keep prices high...

  19. Anonymous Coward

    I know where to find loads

    ...your local landfill.

    All we need now is to ship it off for processing to some third world country with a liberal view on child labour, environmental protection and healthy and safety.

    Oh wait...we do that already. Never mind - carry on.

  20. Rodrigo Valenzuela


    By Arthur C. Clarke (first published in 1955, according to wikipedia).

    In this book, great deposits of valuable minerals are found inside our Moon, but as they are too deep for a mining operation, it is believed that no one can reach them.

    Which of course, is wrong.

    I can remember the exact quote, but it goes something like "Scientists should have a better imagination".


    1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      See also

      Clarke's first law, and Asimov's corollary.'s_three_laws

      Arthur C. Clarke in the essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination" (1962):

      "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

      Isaac Asimov, no cite:

      "When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervor and emotion – the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right."

      One also thinks of the claim - although it is doubtful that it's a claim ever seriously made, in any sense of "serious" - that scientifically, a bumblebee isn't able to fly. What isn't controversial is that scientists are still discovering new ways in which insect muscles are extra efficient, or their wings create special vortices in air, and so forth, that don't occur in passenger aircraft design, nor do you want them to so occur, really. For one thing, you would get aeroplane noise that is ten times more annoying than it already is, and it's a fairly rough ride...

      In the present case, I expect the Japanese immediately to investigate whether these rare earths are also found concentrated in whale carcases.

      Their "scientific" interest in whales - that's food science - seems to be undimmed in the light of discovering that since the tsunami and the nuclear incident, they're getting radioactive whales. It's only a little bit radioactive, and if the Japanese were as worried about radioactivity as that then they'd have had to leave, in 1945.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Naturally, because the metals would be expensive to extract people who are profit-driven will dismiss this research because there is no value if there is no current profit.

    However, if you're one of those people who isn't profit-driven and thinks that long-term means the rest of human existence, what matters more is knowing that there is an abundant, available supply, sufficient for enough for humans to be able to produce everything they need, because the value of something is based on what you can do with it.

    Besides, even an expensive source has value if it acts a price cap.

  22. tmTM

    More to follow

    From the wording of the article I read on the beeb it seemed like Japan had only been looking in earnest for rare-earths since it's spat with China.

    So if they have only really ramped up efforts to find rare-earths in the last year will there be more immediatly usefull discoveries in the near future.

    Or have they been already but are being kept underwraps to keep others off them?

  23. Anonymous Coward


    Now we can seriously **** up another part of the planet, especially a bit no one will ever see!

    Deep joy!

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Warning! This post contains highly scientific terminology.

    Have you tried a magnet?

  25. David Webb


    I don't think cost is the main issue, the main issue is the majority of rare minerals are floating around in China who can throttle Japan any time they desire. Japan is looking for other ways to get hold of rare minerals so they are not beholden to China. They suggest there are billions of tons worth of minerals down there, and only hundreds of millions currently available surface side.

    Will it be profitable at the start? No, but as the process is refined and further refined it will eventually (hopefully) become profitable and able to compete with China.

  26. Eddy Ito

    Breaking news!

    Headline: Vacuum company aims to clean Davy Jones' locker!

    iRoombot corp. has announced a new product called Seda. This new device is the shape of a large mint and is said to be a self guided underwater vacuum with a rare earth catching hepa filter. Skeptics think the idea is a sinker while backers think it sucks.

    Back to you Tim.

  27. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Pumping silt from 5Km below the ocean surface may be a bit tricky.

    You're looking at a sea bet pressure of about 500 Atm

    That's about the pressure inside a Shuttle engine pre burner.

    But a lot colder.

    Happy mining.

    of course if there a way to extract *all* metals in the silt simultaneously that *might* be worthwhile.

  28. cloudgazer

    off shore heavy industry

    One interesting point is that it's pretty easy to make dilute acid from the raw materials readily to hand in the ocean - ie. salt and water, all you need is energy. So the question becomes, are there sources of energy available in such places that are not easily portable (ie. not oil) and are cheap enough to extract that they would support the process.

    Perhaps wave, perhaps clathrate, perhaps using temperature differences?

    Japan is highly motivated to find ways to exploit deep sea resources as it has so little mineral resources of its own.

  29. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

    20 Million? Try Billion..

    THe Japanese discovery is interesting in that it shows more possible deposits down, but they are not as easy to mine as the recent find by Quest in Canada on a location which previously supplied iron ore until that market died due to richer locations elsewhere (key advantage: road infrastructure thus already exists).

    However, I actually met a couple of rare earth traders a while back (friends I know invited me for a trade dinner), and they patiently explained to me that to mine such minerals you need indeed a chemical processing plant, but as you'll need vast titanium containers you're a couple of factors out - apparently you're more talking about billions.

    I guess the debate will thus be: process locally, or ship it elsewhere for processing. It creates quite a bit of waste product, so the logistics will always be interesting but then again, so are the profits.

    There is at present an almighty fight happening about who gains access to certain mines. The Chinese control 97% of the light rare earth metals market, but that's not the one that counts for electronics and batteries - it's the HEAVY rare earth metals that count for electronics, and there they have a 1% stake and as far as I can see the entire planet is trying to make sure they cannot gain control over that market too.

    It's quite interesting to see this happening - I'm no trader but to gain some insight into the way in which raw material makes it way into our toys was enlightening..

  30. Youngdog

    I know...

    ....all we need is a really, really, REALLY long straw

  31. Doug Glass

    Yes, but ...

    ... all the "profit margin" arguments assume a capitalistic approach. In a Utopian socialist society/world the concept of profit has no meaning. Therefore, once the whole world is socialist we'll have no reason not to extract the needed elements. Hip, Hip Hurray for socialism.

  32. Graham Bartlett

    @Rodrigo Valenzuela and Robert Carnegie

    No-one's saying that it's impossible, they're just saying that it's uneconomic, and that even if prices did increase to such a level that it became economic, there's still an abundance of places with the same or better quality of ore which are much easier to get to.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Uneconomic at the moment

    petrochemicals have always been useful, way back into history - tar was used to waterproof stuff, pitch used to burn and so forth. If you'd have gone up to Ramese XV and told him there was more of this stuff than he could ever use merely a few hundred yards underground he'd have told you to stop bothering him, by the time his slaves had dug down that far it wouldn't be worth the while - especially as there is enough of the stuff just lying around in the desert.

    Not that he couldn't dig it out, just that he could better use his slaves and slave food on more worthwhile projects.

    back to the present - once we know how much of this there is and where it is, we can start looking into ways of getting our grubby hands on it - the first person to patent an economically sound method for recovering sea bed elements will be so rich they could even afford to get the latest iDevice every time a new one is released (yes, that fucking rich) - which is incentive enough without all this saving the planet and reducing our reliance on a dictatorial, communist regime hippy bullshit.

  34. Muscleguy

    There's gold in black smokers too

    New Scientist just did a piece on this, only not for rare earths. Turns out there's gold and platinum in the plumes from black smokers too. They report that there's a defunkt field off the north coast of Papua New Guinea that is being lined up for a test mine. So Tim, get yourself down there and do a deal to snaffle their outflow once they have pumped it up for you and concentrated it a bit.

    1. Tim Worstal


      But sadly, the one I'm really interested in is scandium. Which, since the hydroxide is insoluble in water, won't have been concentrated by these plumes, 'coz there isn't much in seawater.

      It's either red mud or the nickel mine in Cuba.

  35. John Savard

    Manganese Nodules

    And here I thought that what killed manganese nodules was that the UN made a law on taking minerals from the ocean that meant that countries mining the ocean would have to pay real money to be shared by Third World countries unable to exploit their share of the ocean... which meant that minerals mined from the ocean would cost foreign exchange, just like imported minerals.

    This would make the chief driver behind finding new sources of stuff - import substitution - inoperative. But now I learn that the nodules were all a CIA hoax in the first place, and so I'm blaming the wrong people!

  36. Anonymous Coward


    So... the rare-earths ain't so rare then. It is just god-damn-fuckingly expensive to explore it. That is rich.

    So, someone with a vision (of unlimited speculation) of the future will explore those gigatonnes anyway and wait for when the regular (and cheap) deposits of ore run out, and the prices go up. Then he'll have the return of his investment selling it at a new (very high) price.

    Like that petroleum-filled-sand, isn't it?

  37. Stevie


    Simply genetically engineer sea cucumbers so they metabolise the mud and secrete a rare-earth shell, seed these silt-beds with the things and harvest giant rare-earth-shelled mutant snails with purpose-built, deep-water snail dredges a few months later.

    A second project could investigate gene-tailoring to imbue the snails with the desire to migrate to shallow coastal waters to breed, concentrating them and reducing costs further.

    Why am I the only one doing real science here?

  38. dssf

    Specific Rare-Birth

    Get caught up and lost in that swamp of a gasseous landfill and you might

    have a SPECIfic rare-BIRTH discovery, producing gigatons of birthing life forms

    Even Species and CHUD would be on the run... in circles, on an R.E.O Speed wagon, hearin from their friends we've been messin' around...

  39. henchan

    variability of concentration

    A significant piece missing from this analysis is variability of concentration. I have not read the original paper, so I don't know whether it goes into that.

    Assuming anything but near zero variation, it seems reasonable that there would be a substantial difference between literally oceans of the muddy stuff off Hawaii and the small pools Tim mined in Greece. Not everywhere, not even in most deposits. But perhaps after further exploration we can expect enough localised concentrations to potentially make exploitation feasible even under existing economic conditions.

  40. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    It;s a simple equation.

    cost of extraction > price we can sell the product at. Rubbish.

    cost of extraction = price we can sell the product at. Look at logistics of extraction.

    cost of extraction < price we can sell the product at. Start building the plant.

    But that assumes the *cost* of extraction stays the same. Now if that drops *enough* it's a whole new game.

    There appears to be no breakthrough in extraction technology that will lower it.

    I do like the bio-concentration idea quite a lot. However as bio-fuel from bacteria has shown it helps if the bacteria *excrete* the product to avoid having to kill them and extract the product which turns out to be quite energy and machine intensive. Problem is if they did excrete little pure metal pellets they'd probably sink to the bottom as well. Better, but still a PITA to lift.

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