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The Next Great Resource Rush: Rare Earth Metals

Right now, China produces most of the rare earth metals used in hybrid engines and wind turbines. But Japan just found 100 billion tons of the stuff.

Neodymium. Lanthanum. Dysprosium. These elements, part of a set of 17 rare earth elements, help make hybrid engines run. They power LED lightbulbs. They’re used in wind turbines. They’re resources fundamental to the design of these and other clean-energy technologies, as well as smartphones and computer screens.

They’re also in short supply and, therefore, the subject of geopolitical intrigue. Rare-earth elements are not as uncommon as the name suggests, but high concentrations of them are hard to come by, and although the United States has 13 billion tons of its own reserves, China has dominated production. Last year, for instance, the United States imported $161 million worth of rare earth materials. Ninety-two percent of that came from China.

The Chinese government at times has threatened to cut off the rest of the world. Officials say they need the metals for their own economy. And last year, when Japan detained a Chinese skipper whose boat was sailing off the coast of Taiwan, China restricted exports of rare earths to its neighbor (although the government denied at the time that it was doing so).

There are ways to circumvent the current power dynamic around rare-earths, though. Efforts to recycle them from spent electronic products have been minimal: more and better recycling could increase the supply. Technologies like hybrid engines or LED lights could also be redesigned to cut out rare earth metals. Toyota’s already working on an engine for the Prius that wouldn’t need them, and a company called Nanosys has developed rare-earthless LEDs.

But countries like Japan are also interested in simply finding more of these metals. A team of Japanese researchers took it upon themselves to start looking in one of the more obvious places—the ocean floor. Rare earth metals are often found in layers of sediment that were originally seabed, and when the University of Tokyo’s Yasuhiro Kato and his team looked at 78 seabed sites in the Pacific ocean, they found a wealth of rare earth materials. They estimate that the sea floor could hold 100 billion tons of rare earth metal, an amount equal to the world's known reserves.

The concentration of the materials in the sea floor is still fairly low. Kato says that the process for extracting the metals would be simple enough. Anyone interested in mining them would have to collect the mud in which they’re mixed, though, which would likely mean pumping it from the seabed floor, up to 6,000 meters below the ocean surface.

It’s not the most practical of mining operations, and it’s unclear what degree of damage sucking up the seabed floor would do to deep-sea ecosystems scientists don’t entirely understand. But the demand for rare earth metals is only going to increase. The deep-sea dysproisum rush may not begin for another decade or so, but unless clean-energy companies find an efficient way to cut rare earth metals from their products, they will be grubbing through the sea bed for them, just as fervently as they’re now siphoning up oil or digging up coal.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Stacy Lynn Baum

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