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Rare earth metals

Treasure trove of rare earth metals discovered on sea floor; will mining devastate ocean ecosystem?

Monday, July 18, 2011 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: rare earth metals, sea floor, health news

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(NaturalNews) Rare earth metals, which have a number of useful applications, are also key elements in the construction of some of the world's leading green technologies. And as these technologies mature, naturally the industries developing them will need more of these metals to keep up with demand.

But until recently, the bulk of these metals were only found in China, which supplies about 97 percent of the world's demand for rare earth metals.

In fact, so "rare" are these elements that China has threatened recently to stop supplying them to the rest of the world, crippling a number of industries - electronics, automobile manufacturing, farming equipment - in the U.S. and throughout the West.

Now, however, Japanese researchers say they have found vast deposits of these elements in the ocean's seabed, thereby nullifying the Chinese threat and unlocking potentially limitless supplies of the very elements so needed to keep our societies on the cutting edge technologically while at the same time solving some of our most pressing energy needs.

Japanese geologists say they believe there could be 100 billion tons of these elements in the mud of the Pacific Ocean floor. That compares with an estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey, which has said previously that global rare earth metal reserves amount to just 110 million tons - most of which is found in China.

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

That's the good news. The bad news is, it could be ecologically catastrophic to mine these elements and get them to market.

The government of Malaysia is already dealing with the issue. It wants to allow an Australian firm to help finance a mining operation there, but is being met with resistance from residents concerned about potential radioactive waste.

In addition, such ocean-borne mining operations could prove disastrous to ocean life and ocean ecosystems, and considering that 75 percent of the earth is covered by oceans - and the vast food reserves contained therein - these concerns are much more than valid.

"It's a unique set of life down there. Frankly, we haven't found everything. We need make sure we go in with our eyes open," Maurice Tivey, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said at an ocean mining forum in Cape Cod in 2009.

Rules were discussed at the forum that would help create an environment conducive to exploration and mining, but also one that would preserve these invaluable ecosystems.

"The mining needs to go forward, the environments need to be sustained and conserved," said marine geologist Peter Rona of Rutgers University.
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