The Japanese have been searching for an alternative to Chinese rare earth minerals for more than a year and claim to have found it with this recently published paper.

It has long been known there were high concentrations of minerals on the ocean floor – this accumulated mud is the decomposing biomass of a gazillion micro algae that have built up over eons mixed with the emissions of ocean floor vents.  We (ETC) have discussed this possibility at length within our own group and Crude – The Incredible Journey of Oil the 2007 Documentary, shows this process in the scene where they journey to the ocean floor to see this Industrial Metabolism cycle in progress (these layers of biomass are the primary source of petroleum, natural gas and coal).

This “discovery” supports the concept that micro algae is a fundamental source of life on our planet and that we need to tap into it directly for our sustainability. Micro algae is also the primary 2nd generation feedstock target for the production of biodiesel.  Minerals from the ocean floor vents add a new twist and we are curious about the types and volumes of minerals that can be extracted from this source and the cost of doing so.  We do not believe this potential source will contain high concentrations of all rare earths – only a few and primarily the light weight rare earths and far less of the heavy rare earth minerals.

Mining mud from 1-4 miles below the surface and then using toxic chemistry for the refining process on a ship in the middle of the ocean brings a list of cost, logistic and environmental concerns to mind. A major concern is the concept of using saltwater to process minerals as saltwater is extremely corrosive and desalinization for fresh water processing on a ship is extremely expensive.

Refining minerals requires a great deal of energy.  Again, saltwater is extremely corrosive and exposing renewable assets such as wind turbines or solar panels to the saltwater will shorten their life expectancy to the degree that they would likely never be more cost effective than the default diesel engines.  So these ocean floor rare earth mineral mining companies are going to haul vast amounts of fuel to the middle of the ocean to power a large array of mineral extraction systems, high capacity pumps, … That puts their energy costs at something over $.60Kwh. Land based rare earth mineral extraction mines and refineries typically operate at less than $.10Kwh in many of the western U.S. states and below $.04Kwh in other nations.

Also, of all the environmental organizations, the ocean groups are the oldest and some of the most powerful. This means the ocean floor rare earth mineral mining companies will eventually be required to take responsibility for the toxic chemistry necessary for rare earth mineral processing – so no dumping acids overboard. This will result in still more equipment – possibly arrays of filter presses – and still more energy.

While those ships will be pulling ore from the ocean floor and processing primarily for rare earths – land based mining operations are typically also processing gold, silver, platinum, palladium, rhodium, …, to off-set the cost of rare earth mineral extraction.  We do not expect such opportunities will be present in the muds of the oceans simply because the heavy metals are not likely to find their way into the husks of micro algae and ocean floor vents are not likely to expel large quantities of heavy metals based on the physics necessary to do so.  We expect land based rare earth mineral extraction and refining costs will be less than these proposed ocean mining operations by some factor.

While the more aware people in the rare earth mineral industry expected there were reserves in these ocean muds, it is good to be made aware of these proven reserves for our future.  While it will certainly be less expensive to mine the ocean floors than to mine the minerals of Mars, we do not believe this announcement will greatly effect the market costs or supply levels of rare earths in the coming years.

For more information about the discovery and its potential to change the industry, the following article has weighed the facts and issues…

Japan discovers rare earths under pacific