A total of 17 rare earth minerals make our high tech devices run the way they do through their reaction with other materials that produce, for example, light batteries or powerful magnets. However, functioning mines, a large majority of which are in China, are starting to run out of elements. The U.S. National Academy of Science and the European Union say the world is on the brink of a shortage.
However, there may be a solution. Ozy notes that ocean floors are covered in potato-sized rocks that contain manganese, iron and rare minerals. These rocks were first discovered back in the 19th century, but harvesting them on a commercial level seems near impossible, both technically and economically.
A recent study from German geochemists have demonstrated a way to harvest the deep sea rocks in an efficient way. They used a solvent agent that is often used to treat iron poisoning, called desferrioxamine-B, to extract rare earths from polymetallic lumps.
UK-based Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, has been given permission from the International Seabed Authority to explore, for the next 30 years, more than 22,000 square miles of the pacific. The goal is to eventually harvest nodules near Cook Islands.
“Our plan is to literally hoover them off the ocean floor. And we believe it’s entirely feasible to build a harvester that will allow us to do this in a way that is environmentally benign,” said Stephen Ball from Lockheed Martin, adding that the device is already being tested.
Every year, 130,000 metric tons of earth metals are mined, which means that the implications for these deep sea rocks are huge. While it wouldn't replace land mining, it would alleviate the worry for a shortage. Seabed Resources estimates that such an industry could make $1.7 billion for the UK economy a year.
Experts believe this new harvesting method could become common in a decade.
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