A rare earth element (REE) or rare earth metal is one of a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. They are used extensively in the production of battery alloys, ceramics and magnets that advanced technologies rely on and are a critical to the development of modern military hardware. Researchers believe that deep seabed mining could one day become a significant source of rare earth elements.
A new gold rush is targeting rich ores on the ocean floor containing valuable metals needed for smartphones and green technologies, but also hosting exotic ecosystems, raising questions about whether deep seabed mining is really an ecologic alternative to land-based mining.D
Scientists looking for deep sea organisms on a research cruise last month got a surprise when, instead of deep sea life, they pulled up metal balls the size of softballs. The German researchers stumbled inadvertently onto the discovery of the largest deposit of manganese nodules known to exist in the Atlantic ocean.
While economists and geologists worry the world's supply of rare earth metals will soon be outpaced by demand, a team of German geochemists has found a way to easily extract them from the vast deposits lying under the sea.
A huge chunk of modern-day technology, from hybrid cars to iPhones to flat-screen TVs to radiation screens, use dozens of different metals and alloys. What would happen if we run short of any of these valuable metals? Say there's a war. Or unrest in a crucial mining region. Or China decides to lock up its strontium deposits. Could we easily come up with substitutes? Or is modern society vulnerable to a materials shortage?
Minerals, such as rare earth metals, are increasingly becoming an important commodity in a resource-constrained world economy. As a result new frontiers both onshore and offshore, to the depths of the ocean, are emerging around the world.
It has long been known that the ocean might provide a wealth of rare earths. Sea-floor hydrothermal vents pump out rare-earth elements dissolved in their hot fluids. And these elements and others accumulate in potato-sized lumps, called manganese nodules, on the sea floor. The elements also build up in sea-floor mud; but only a few spot measures of this source of rare-earth elements have previously been made.
Kato and his colleagues set out to perform a widespread assessment of this possible resource. They looked at 2,000 samples of sediments taken from 78 sites around the Pacific, and found rare-earth concentrations as high as 0.2% of the mud in the eastern South Pacific, and 0.1% near Hawaii. That might not sound like much, but those concentrations are as high as or higher than those at one clay mine currently in operation in China, they point out. And the deposits are particularly rich in heavy rare-earth elements — the rarer and more expensive metals.
Some of the deposits are more than 70 metres thick. The authors estimate that an area of 1 square kilometre around a hotspot near Hawaii could hold 25,000 tonnes of rare earths. Overall, they say, the ocean floor might hold more than the 110 million tonnes of rare earths estimated to be buried on land.
Seabed mining, in the Arctic and elsewhere, is also becoming an important strategic interest for the United States. U.S. companies increasingly seek to engage in seabed mining for minerals such as rare earth elements and cobalt that are critical to the broad U.S. economy and used in producing defense assets. However, as long as the United States remains outside the international legal protections afforded by LOSC, the private sector remains hesitant to invest in seabed mining – investments that would reduce U.S. vulnerabilities to external pressure and supply disruption. Indeed, since few suppliers provide such minerals and they are prone to intentional or unintentional disruptions and price spikes, increasing U.S. production will help prevent suppliers from exerting political and economic leverage over the United States and its allies.22
The second economic benefit I would like to highlight relates to mining in the deep seabed areas beyond any country’s jurisdiction. Only as a Party to the Convention could the United States sponsor U.S. companies like Lockheed Martin to mine the deep seabed for valuable metals and rare earth elements. These rare earth elements – essential for cell phones, flat-screen televisions, electric car batteries, and other high-tech products – are currently in tight supply and produced almost exclusively by China. While we challenge China’s export restrictions, we must also make it possible for U.S. companies to develop other sources of these critical materials. They can only do this if they can obtain secure rights to deep seabed mine sites and indisputable title to minerals recovered. While we sit on the sidelines, companies in China, India, Russia, and elsewhere are securing their rights, moving ahead with deep seabed resource exploration, and taking the lead in this emerging market.
India has joined the race to explore and develop deep-sea mining for rare earth elements — further complicating the geopolitics surrounding untapped sources of valuable minerals beneath the oceans. The country is building a rare-earth mineral processing plant in the east coast state of Orissa and it is spending around US$135 million to buy a new exploration ship and to retool another for sophisticated deep-water exploration off its coast. The Central Indian Basin, for example, is rich in nickel, copper, cobalt and potentially rare-earth minerals, which are highly lucrative and used widely in manufacturing electronics such as mobile phone batteries. They are found in potato-shaped nodules on the deep-sea floor. "These nodules offer a good solution to meeting the nation's demand for metals," C. R. Deepak, head of the deep-sea mining division at the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai, told SciDev.Net.
Until a decade ago, the United States was 100 percent self-reliant for rare earth production, with domestic companies producing enough to supply U.S. manufacturers. Over time, however, U.S. production was halted as it became economically and environmentally cost prohibitive.
Companies in various countries – including the United States – are looking at reopening closed mines and developing new deposits, but these efforts could take a number of years to fully come on line.
The deep seabed offers a new opportunity for the United States to gain steady access to these vital rare earth minerals. Polymetallic nodules are located on the deep ocean floor. These nodules typically contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals. However, U.S. companies cannot actively pursue claims in the areas where these nodules are dense unless the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Treaty.
At the same time, the Chinese are accelerating their own deep seabed mining efforts. They have increased government funding for seabed mining, and the government announced a $75 million national deep sea technology base in 2010. China is also expanding its engagement with the ISA, where it secured one of the four ISA exploration licenses issued in 2011. The Chinese can boast more than 20 years of sustained technical and political efforts to develop the deep seabed, funded by the government.
A close look at the map of claims in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a location in the Pacific Ocean that is rich with rare earths, shows active claims by China, Japan and Russia “planting their flags,” so to speak. Recently published reports have indicated that the Chinese are actively surveying other claim areas in the CCZ, including those of the U.S. Russia, Tonga and Nauru were also granted deep seabed mining licenses by the ISA last year. At last count, the ISA has 17 pending or completed applications for exploration – up from just eight in 2010.
Only ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention and engagement with the ISA will provide a sufficient mechanism to secure international recognition of U.S.-based claims and rights. Manufacturers and consumers will benefit from a more diverse and competitive market for rare earths, and deep seabed mining is an opportunity for the U.S. to quickly diversify its rare earth sources.
Many rare earth products and technologies possess dual-use attributes, meaning they are used for both commercial and military purposes. In the commercial sector, for example, today’s hybrid vehicles employ rare earths permanent magnets in their electric traction drives,27 which either replace or supplement internal combustion engines in hybrid automobiles, increasing energy efficiency.28 Additionally, the Toyota Prius has a nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery for energy storage, which increases overall fuel economy.29 Wind turbines also integrate permanent magnets in gear- less generators for better reliability and online performance.30 The new fluorescent light bulbs on the market utilize rare earth phosphors. These light bulbs consume 70 percent less energy than the older incandescent bulbs.31 Finally, rare earths are found in automobile catalytic convertors to reduce dangerous emissions of CO2 and ozone, contributing to a cleaner environment.32
Furthermore, dual-use components made from rare earths play a vital role in U.S. national security through defense sector applications. Permanent magnets are incorporated in critical guidance and control mechanisms of U.S.-built weapons, enabling kinetic weapons to impact their target.33 Today’s advanced jet engines are coated with rare earth elements for increased thermal stress resistance.34 The performance requirements for the engines on the F-22A Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) are extremely stringent based on the environment in which these aircraft routinely operate. Without the added thermal protection rare earths provide, engine performance may be degraded with catastrophic results.
Rare earths technology used in electronics also has numerous defense applications. The same technology used in manufacturing commercial Ni-MH batteries is also found in both electronic warfare systems and directed energy weapons.35 Examples of their use include smart jammers on advanced U.S. fighter aircraft, area denial weapons systems, and the electromagnetic railgun.36 All of these weapons require high efficiency battery technology to function properly. Additionally, computer drives manufactured with critical rare earths enable precision weapons systems to reach their targets, while laser technology depends on the amplification properties of rare earths for targeting.37 Without these critical components, accuracy would deteriorate, potentially resulting in increased collateral damage and weapons expenditure.
The demand for rare earths continues to rise. In 2010, the worldwide demand for rare earth oxides was 127,500 metric tons.45 China produced over 130,000 metric tons of rare earths in 2010 and 2011, eclipsing world demand.46 The next largest producer was India with a paltry 3,000 metric tons, followed by Brazil at 550 metric tons, and Malaysia at thirty metric tons.47 These production rates exemplify the disparity between China and its closest competitors in the industry.
By 2014, it is estimated that total demand for rare earth oxides will reach 177,200 metric tons.48 This increase equates to a 75 percent growth in demand for battery alloy production and a 57 percent growth in demand for permanent magnets.49 Capacity for meeting the increased demand is uncertain. Of the world’s estimated 110,000,000 metric tons of reserves, China controls half.50 The Commonwealth of Independent States is second, controlling approximately 19,000,000 metric tons, with the U.S. in third at 13,000,000 metric tons.51 Despite the large number of reserves deposited across the planet, very few countries possess the capacity to mine the ores and process them into rare earth oxides. However, with increasing demand on the horizon accompanied by increasing value, more nations as well as private corporations may be willing to enter the market
As demonstrated in the hypothetical scenario at the beginning of this paper, China’s hold on rare earths may be a decisive factor in a future confrontation with the United States. The numerous weapons systems that rely on rare earths technology place the United States at a strategic disad- vantage with regards to China. If a prolonged, large-scale conflict between the two nations broke out over a Taiwan Strait or South China Sea dispute, the United States may find itself squeezed to obtain sufficient supplies of rare earths to manufacture replacement parts or systems to remain engaged in the fight. Much as the lack of secure access to oil was crippling to the Germans at the end of World War II, rare earths could play a similar, pivotal role in a future conflict with China. In the air-to-air arena alone, the requirement to replace expended stockpiles of advanced air-to-air missiles could become a factor very quickly based on the number of aircraft China would be capable of employing.
U.S. companies increasingly seek to engage in seabed mining for minerals such as rare earth elements and cobalt that are critical to the broad U.S. economy and used in producing defense assets. The deep seabed contains two potential sources for rare earth elements: polymetallic nodules which typically contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals; and sea-floor hydrothermal vents which pump out rare-earth elements dissolved in their hot fluids.
U.S. next-generation military technology has become so dependent on a steady supply of rare earth metals that it could become a strategic disadvantage in any coming war with China. In addition, these metals have become valuable for advanced electronics and energy efficient "green" technologies.