Huge rare earth deposits found in Pacific: Japan

REUTERSJULY 3, 2011 9:01 PM

TOKYO ² Vast deposits of rare earth minerals, crucial in making high -tech electronics products, have been found on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and can be readily extracted, Japanese scientists said on Monday.

³The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometre (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one -fifth of the current global annual consumption,´ said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of T okyo.

The discovery was made by a team l ed by Kato and including researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine -Earth Science and Technology.

They found the minerals in sea mud extracted from depths of 3,500 to 6,000 metres (11,500 -20,000 ft) below the ocean surface at 78 locations. One-third of the sites yielded rich contents of rare earths and the metal yttrium, Kato said in a telephone interview.

The deposits are in international waters in an area stretching east and west of Hawaii, as well as east of Tahiti in French P olynesia, he said.

He estimated rare earths contained in the deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion tonnes, compared to global reserves currently confi rmed by the U.S. Geological Survey of just 110 million tonnes that have been found mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries, and the United States.

Details of the discovery were published on Monday in the online version of British journal Nature Geoscience.

The level of uranium and thorium -- radioactive ingredients that are usually contained in such deposits that can pose environmental hazards -was found to be one -fifth of those in deposits on land, Kato said.

A chronic shortage of rare earths, vital for making a range of high -technology electronics, magnets and batteries, has encouraged mining projects for them in recent years.

China, which accounts for 97 percent of global rare earth supplies, has been tightening trade in the strategic metals, sparki ng an explosion in prices. Japan, which accounts for a third of global demand, has been stung badly, and has been loo king to diversify its supply sources, particularly of heavy rare earths such as dysprosium used in magnets.

Kato said the sea mud was especially rich in heavier rare earths such as gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium.

³These are used to manufactur e flat-screen TVs, LED (light-emitting diode) valves, and hybrid cars,´ he said.

Extracting the deposits requires pumping up material from the ocean floor. ³Sea mud can be brought up to ships and we can ext ract rare earths right there using simple acid leaching,´ he said. ³Using diluted acid, the process is fast, and within a few hours we can extract 80 -90 percent of rare earths from the mud.´ The team found that sites close to Hawaii and Tahiti were especially rich in rare earths, he said.

He gave no estimate of when extraction of the materials from the seabed might start.
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As the technology is frequently developed at an incredible rate, the world demand for rare-earth elements ²which are crucial for novel electronic equipment and green-energy technologies²is increasing rapidly. As such, the discovery of massive rare earth deposits in Pacific seabed is a golden opportunity for the development of high-tech equipment and for reducing economic cost of such materials. The prospect of deep sea mining for precious metals has been discussed with great enthusiasm, but at the same time, the potential damage that could do to the marine ecosystems causes much worries for environmentalists. As deep sea areas are proved to be one of the world¶s richest and most astonishing ecosystem, any disturbance caused by seabed mining would impact the environment there for a very long time, especially when the conditions at such depth are normally very stable.

. and a small leakage of acidic materials will be more than enough to cause pollution in the ocean in wide area.Moreover. the environment and life on the Earth are what actually matters. there has not been any firm proof that seabed mining would be economically viable. Not to mention that while the damage to the marine environment from activities such as dredging and trawling are all too obvious. plumes of sediment that are disgorged into water during the cutting and pumping process of seabed mining will not only put the deep-sea animals into great danger but also contaminate water in neighboring zones and destroy other marine ecosystems. even though the profits that could be brought about to the economy and the development of technology by mining for rare earths materials. environmental conservation has to take precedence over any kind of commerce or narrow industry interest. and seabed mining for rare earth materials should not be approved. it is not worth taking any risk of ocean pollution. Therefore. acid-leaching method may be used thanks to its effectiveness in extracting rare earths from the sea mud. However. Also. acids that are used may be toxic. to carry out deep-sea mining. Hence. Commercial benefits from seabed mining may sound interesting and promising for a new era in developing hi-tech equipment.

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