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Surprising Science

Trove of Rare Earth Metals Found

The world’s insatiable demand for the rare-earth elements needed to make almost all technological gadgets could one day be partially met by sea-floor mining, says a new report.

What’s the Latest Development?

It has long been known that the ocean might provide a wealth of rare earth metals. Sea-floor hydrothermal vents pump out rare-earth elements dissolved in their hot fluids. A recent assessment of the Pacific Ocean’s resources published in Nature Geoscience estimates that “a 1-square-kilometre area around the site that has the highest concentration of the elements in its mud holds a cache equivalent to one-fifth of current annual demand—about the same yield as a small mine on land.”

What’s the Big Idea?

While the elements found on the Pacific floor are the same ones currently used in high-tech gadgets, mining the elements is another questions entirely. “People talk about mining on the asteroids or the Moon. This isn’t that hard, but it’s similar,” says Gareth Hatch, an industry analyst and founder of the Technology Metals Research consultancy in Carpentersville, Illinois. “Commercial mining of [sea-floor] nodules is ‘probably a decade away’, says Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.”


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