Rare earth minerals – those 17 valuable elements with myriad industrial, commercial, and military applications – have been the subject of a lot of hand wringing lately. They're in short supply (at least in processed form), and with the exception of China no nation in the world can readily mine them from the Earth and process them in large quantities. But an old idea long considered somewhat fantastical is re-emerging as a serious option for harvesting rare-earths from a place not usually associated with mining: the ocean floor.
China's monopoly on the global supply of rare-earth elements has been of particular worry lately as tensions between China and Japan, and then between China and the West, recently led to something of an unofficial embargo on the prized minerals. The faux embargo has since lifted, but it left every industrialized nation not named China feeling economically vulnerable. Nations from Japan to the U.S. to Europe have since scrambled to find independent supply chains.
But it's the rising prices of more common metals like copper and nickel, rather than rare earths, that are driving some visionaries to look to the seafloor. Scattered at the bottom of the oceans are vast numbers of potato-sized rocks called manganese nodules that contain harvestable amounts of copper, cobalt, nickel, and their namesake manganese.
Previously it wasn't economically viable to build giant machines to scour the seafloor for nodules, but with commodities like copper and nickel gaining value that economic model might change. Advances in robotics have made the idea of fleets of seafloor mining far more viable (remember those 'bots that tied off the BP well?), and now that it's been established that manganese nodules also contain rare earths, that model improves further.
Especially if China were to ever turn off its rare earths spigot. China supplies more than 95 percent of the global supply of processed rare earths, which are necessary to manufacture everything from personal electronics to cutting edge military technology to computers. And China and the West, while economic partners, aren't always on the friendliest of terms.
In terms of challenges, mining the seafloor wouldn't be easy. But tapping fleets of robots to do our dirty work on the ocean floor would make for a smart use of technology that would undoubtedly save human lives. The recent Chilean mine disaster, as well as several mining accidents in the U.S. over the last decade, serve as reminders that the deeper we go into the Earth seeking the things that fuel our economies, the more dangerous it becomes.
Compared with the kind of ordeal the 33 Chilean miners just survived, scooping rocks off the seafloor seems relatively easy. Plus we'd learn a lot about undersea robotics along the way. If the market justifies the cost, it certainly won't hurt to have increased dependable supplies of copper and nickel, and if it helps diversify the available global sources of rare earth elements, well, that's icing on the economic cake.
China will end up starting a nuclear confrontation with the West within 10 years. Bet on it.
Would Giant robots treading the sea floor harvesting materials be a really good way to damage a lot of ecosystems?
Yea WWIII will be China vs US & Allies. It's a shame to see it come down to that, but I don't see China wanting to unite with the rest of the world. They are on their own agenda and plan on controlling everyone and thing. Communism is not something to joke about. Remember China harbors a lot of piracy from Windows, fake shoes, fake clothes, fake fake fake. They are very unethical and egocentric. Let's hope we don't have to see the "Great World War".
*D Ace Lee*____Bobcat ftw____
Pray that doesn't happen though. China is the biggest supporter for the U.S.. The reason we are friends is because if one of us falls, everything will fall with it and everything will go into chaos. China is keeping the U.S. alive. They are the reason the U.S. is the most powerful country. But don't think they own us though. China needs us just as much since we are pretty much the only country that buys their products. We are the biggest economic supporter for China.
Right now the U.S. and China are tangled in a loop. If one of us falls, the other one falls with it. And after that everything will go into chaos.
Uh oh drilling into the sea floor there going to release cthulhu.Only the power of mint and berry set with a satisfying tasty crunch will be able to save us.
This would do far less eco-damage than current drag netting. Most of the ocean's life is on the fringes (shallow continental shelves). The majority of the ocean floor is a wasteland - a desert of detritious, a few scavangers, and ocasional "islands" of life.
This most productive spaces for mining the sea floor is in areas where currents already sweep the sea floor of light sand and nutrient life.
Perhaps DARPA should sponsor some kind of competition for this. The competition would involve seeing which robot design could scoop up the most manganese nodules and put them in a basket in the shortest period of time.
Who needs DARPA! I'll sponsor it!
The Official details for the Underwater Manganese Nodules Scooper will be released shortly.
Very intersting article -- and what is especially interesting is that this is not some far off technology. A Canadian company (with help of companies from around the world) has been working with this concept since the mid 90s. The company is called Nautilus Minerals and is worth looking up.
I have follwed this company for years because of the Care that they are taking with the environment -- subsea 'mines' are made from the remenants of underwater volcanos. The mineral content is extremely high and has nothing on top of it (no over burden). These mines are in very deep water (1300m) so very few critters live there -- there are no reefs and very few fish because there is no light. There are worms and crabs -- every living thing is important -- but they will be relocated and a team of scientists are making recommendations of how to ethically and safely get this rich ore up.
In comparison to normal terrestrial mines, subsea mines are at least an order of magnitude (!) smaller that traditional mines. They have no overburden (dirt and trees to be killed and moved), not much lives there (unlike all the forrest critters, farms and people near traditional mines), very little 'tailings' (stuff seperated from the ore) since the mineral concentration is so high and no need for high levels of chemicals to seperate the ore and minerals.
Deep subsea mining may prove to be the most evironmentally friendly way to get commodities that has ever been dreamed up. If anyone is interested, there is a lot of reports and some video about the science and the processes involved -- the contributors to the environmental impact study read like the 'who's who' of the worlds best underwater institutions.
I love that "Green Tech" is dependant on these materials.
Next time you see a snooty person driving a prius, let 'em know how much strip mining and pollution is caused to make their batteries.
Sea floor? Nah, the moon! Drill Baby Drill!
Two corrections to my earlier post:
1. I meant to say hydrothermal vents... not volcanos
2. The scientists are not looking for ethical and safe ways to get the ore up! The engineers can figure out how to get the ore up... the scientists are looking at the marine life and the ecosystems and ensuring that the subsea mining has minimal impacts.
The fact that there are some active hydrothermal smokers nearby that contain natural poisons and temperatures above 500 degrees will propbably mask any impact from the mining (this is just my opinion).
I doubt any western view of China would be accurate. They simply do not think like we do. It isn't mean to say that but stating a fact. I have lived all over the world and people are quite different in how they view others. I doubt they feel we are interlinked at all.
As for the sea floor. Sure, why not. Wrecked every other place except comets.
I'd just like to make the distinction, speaking as someone that has lived and worked in Asia, that China's human rights abuses and other well known bad points are mainly down to the political elite; the Chinese people on the other hand are by and large an extremely diligent, long suffering, hard working, and smart society. It's a distinction that I feel gets overlooked when China is vilified.
The piracy of intellectual property for example is symptomatic of weak government policy in this area - I'm sure there would be unscrupulous people in the US and Europe who would create pirate goods wherever weak laws permitted it - hang on, we do (Pirate Bay anyone?) - and hey, the west is one of the biggest markets for those pirate goods - so let's not get on any moral high horse!
I think comments painting China as a war mongering nation are ill advised considering the west's war mongering record (look at the mess we've made in Afghanistan and Iraq).
China's prosperity depends on a healthy export market and robust manufacturing. They want to dominate the rare earth market so that they will have an industrial advantage and be able to continue selling high-value goods to the rest of the world. A war would destroy their export markets and wreck their economy, since they do not have a high-seas navy to protect their trade routes. Therefore it is not in their interests to get involved in a war.
Maybe instead of trying to mitigate meteor strikes, we should look to pulling them in. Start setting satellites out that can slow them over time and direct them to us or our moon. Start using that moon as a net then set transport from there.
Why is humanity so stupid? GO MINE AN ASTEROID! Seriously, have all the countries in the world contribute, and go mine an asteroid. Running out of rare earth minerals? Go mine an asteroid. Having over-population problems? Go colonize space. Stop waiting until Earth is milked dry, and go venture out into space to solve these problems. Humanity needs to quit being so greedy and stupid, and go colonize space.
I wish I could address the entire world, all of humanity, and tell them that we should be colonizing space, and mining asteroids for resources, but of course we don't live in a Ster Trek Federation yet, so having a united planet probably won't be happening anytime soon, but it's nice to dream.
Americans assume unending oil energy to fill their wildest desires! Bomb the fuuck out of OPEC when the true reserves are measured and come up short - Yankee logic? But: do it with Canadian oil in your jets or don't do it at all! Your mighty Military presence in the world it totally oil dependent and you have none - zero- zilch at home to back your posturing! It takes a special type of ass-hole to blame China because its mines ran out, Yankee Doodle!
Americans must concentrate on Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Geothermal and Nuclear technologies for energy in the near future! All of these translate to electrical energies - not oil! All but Nuclear are perpetual and will last as long as the sun rises and sets, the world rotates! Only Nuclear is dirty and only when exploited by American technology! Thorium bed reactors produce the least offensive most controllable waste, but no bombs - no go - for war-like Yankee Doodle!
China is not the enemy - Americans are Their own worst enemies! Long ago we were exposed to the idea that Greed, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Gluttony, Lust and Pride could and would do us damage. We tested these, and as our Empire perverts itself and sinks with the former U.S.S.R., into the deeps of obscurity, we realize, too late, that we had been taught correctly and did not heed!
An astoundingly painful paradigm shift to electrical energy in America must occur and this will be triggered by the truth about OPEC's reserves - coming soon as disparaging news to Americans! Truth is: the bastards use dip sticks to measure oil wells and lie about their findings to satisfy political circumstances in the Middle East! Once the truth about the true oil reserves of the world is outed and the rte of use of this diminishing resource is calculated in to include Asian demands, America will want desperately to convert to electricity!
Mining Ocean floors id energy intensive. It will fit in somewhere in the scheme of things in this 21st century, and perhaps on grand scale of the communist Chinese take it on, and like their huge Nuclear industry, yielding thirty new reactors this year, will bloom into a giant and provide a host of resources to the world, but American Capitalists will have to settle for secondary bets on the Hang Seng, Beijing, and Shanghai stock markets for this play as their own country has been bankrupted by them already in the manufacturing and heavy industry areas and no longer has the cash to sponsor large projects and has no political will at this scale.
As long as we don't destroy the sea floor in the process...
go mine an asteroid wahahahaha. nice.
Uncle B-- question. Since it takes alot of rare Earth metals to build the solar/wind/hydro/etc plants aren't we just trading off one shortage for another? If the US decided to use those techs to even supply a quarter of our total power needs, what will start happening to the costs of those rare earth metals?
First we need a cheap, reliable source of those materials-- only then does it make sense to go crazy with these technologies.
China does not have a world monopoly on rare earth metals as this article states. China is the lowest-cost producer of rare earth metals because of its low cost labor force and so it undercuts the competition on cost. This is an economic dependence. Rare earths are everywhere in the earth and have been mined in the USA and Australia among other countries. Governments could order the resumption of mining in the USA and Australia by simply committing to the higher labor costs and doing it as a national security imperitive.
Last time there was a "serious" effort to mine manganese nodules it was a cover story for a covert operation to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear-armed sub. Fascinating story. There was a PBS documentary that I wish I remembered the name of.
Which begs the question: why should I believe it this time round?
Quite a number of years ago, the subject of manganese nodules was raised in a movie "Around the World Under the Sea" (www.imdb.com/title/tt0060126/)
The premise was a mission to place seismic sensors on the ocean floor using a deep submersible. They found manganese nodules that made them all rich.
The sensor idea was nice. The nodules in the movie were nothing more than an interesting plot device at the time, but demonstrate awareness of their existence and worth many decades ago.
Maybe someone will actually go after them now. Maybe Ballard? He has the equipment at hand and money to fund the attempt...
you remember the old gag about nasa spending millions developing a pen that would write in space, and the soviets using a pencil? gathering these manganese nodules from the sea floor. right, lets think.
1, dangerous manned expedition
2, expensive robots
3, load of farting about when you could just use a really long rope and a chuffing big magnet?!!?
Underwater mining. The worlds newest Most Dangerous Job. The Discovery Channel will have a reality TV version of this ready before you know it.
I remember when I was a kid and Steve Miller Band was telling us all to fly like an eagle to the sea, and PopSci/PopMech was showing us underwater cities, geothermal plants,and undersea farms. In all these years, we have now come to a small handful of companies making underwater riding toys, and an even smaller handful of companies that have any continual undersea presence at depth capable of housing humans. Now we come to an age where our base metals price will make any large scale undertaking problematic at best. Still, a bit of effort could provide a serious stock of waiting metals. You'll see piles and piles of steel, copper, and aluminum dotted around any American town or city, oxidizing. I've been trying to imagine the business model that would show us it's more effective to mine those metals from the earth all over again, but I guess I'm not that creative. From my many years in both manufacturing and construction I've seen many more huge piles created outside of now derelict, massively huge buildings made with even more base metal. While we pay evermore exorbitant prices for these same base metals. And artificially depress the recycling market so that millions of unemployed Americans can't justify the effort it would take to bring all this metal back to market. How amazingly advanced the business plan must be that it makes so little sense.