back to article Pacific rare-earth discovery: Actually just gigatonnes of dirt

There has been a lot of excitement over a recent paper by Japanese researchers who have discovered billions – hundreds of billions – of tonnes of rare earths under the Pacific Ocean. Those rare earths, you will recall, are essential to so much of modern technology, from those sweet little earbuds of your iPod and the magnets in …

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Like the gunk on the roads.

A few years back, I read somewhere that on today's roads, the dirt is almost (within a factor of about ten) sufficiently concentrated to become platinum ore. The source of the platinum? Catalytic converters. Little bits of platinum (the actual catalyst) break off the interior and depart via the exhaust tailpipe. They land on the road surface, and get mixed in with the assorted gunk that's already there.

Apparently, it was, at the time, only about a tenth of the concentration of platinum in marginal-quality ore.

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Moving on

There's a post-grad at Brum Uni who thinks that the concentration is now high enough to mine. She's trying to work out how to separate the particularate matter (the soot etc, which is where the platinum will be) from all the other gunk swept up off the roads.

She might even manage it too.

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Also similarly

I also read that landfil sites in US of A contain aluminium concentrations (drink cans) higher than that found in bauxite mines, and has a much lower cost to refine. However there are probably lots of other things among the cans that makes it dangerous to go looking through!

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Go

It'd make an interesting change to roadsweepers

I know the paper doesn't seem worth much, but if you look at it on a nice-to-note-for-the-future basis, its awfully handy. If someone comes along and says "oh, how about you make, I don't know, some kind of giant hoover, that ducts straight into this seawater-filled, magnet-lined centrifuge*, and that takes your mud from 2000ppm to 200,000ppm, and also we get to squirt off a bunch of other high-concentration-of-x mixes then we're good.

the thing about ore mining, and processing, and all that primary-producer malarkey is you can run a very successful business on a very narrow profit margin : if you shift enough material. What the report says is "the material is here. lots of it. fucking bajillions of tons, right here" whilst the current "wash it with fuckloads of acid" doesnt really appeal for now, a lot of scientific and industrial progress isnt made in a straight line; its a game of engineering hangman, where the blanks get filled until someone realises that MON_Y is only lacking one letter, and then they win the prize.

a bloody big, rare-metal siltbed is a letter. a couple more, and you might just see a new industry flourish out of bloody nowhere.

*people with more Engineerspeak can come up with a better lie here.

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@BristolBachelor

I heard Peter Mills of New Earth Solutions on Radio 4 who suggested that we should mine the plastics from landfill sites, if only to use them as a fuel, although he actually suggested re-using them, and only burning them when they could no longer be recycled.

I think that we need to examine how disadvantaged people in developing countries pick over their landfill sites to get every bit of useful material, down to the tins, bottles and plastic bags. It's not nice, but it gives these people a way of generating some money out of nothing, while reducing what is in the landfill to just the worthless waste.

I'm not suggesting that we should force people into a scavenger class (although bog knows, making the long term unemployed do this once in a while might teach them something valuable about their benefits), but it is clear that there are lessons that we 'superior western' countries could learn from our less fortunate cousins.

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Boffin

Mining landfill sites

I've thought for years this should be a viable option for the future. Landfill makes a lot more sense than dumping at sea because you can get back at it later when economically viable to do so (well both have an economical case but landfill mining would be cheaper).

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@ BristolBachelor

Bauxite is one of the most common minerals on the planet. The cost does not come from mining but from the incredible amount of electricity needed to release the mineral from the ore itself.

I hate seeing anything thrown away because of our disposable society.. we should always attempt to recycle when we can... It needs to be cheap and effective.. such as mechanical sorting our trash before its compacted into our landfills.. sorting the trash at the landfill can remove items like plastic and metals for recycling and leaving a larger amount of organics to decompose into methane.

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Dangerous stuff in landfills

Mite/cockroach/bed-bug-laden mattresses, unexploded ordnance, contagious hypo (or, hehe, HYPER)demic needles, corpses, suitcases full of cash, unopened winter holiday gifts, jagged cans, broken glass.... You'd probably need a smelting and sifting and toxic gas filtration system that even the assimilating Borg would envy and add to their own technology base, hehehe

Step in there and fall, you won't be aSSIMIlated... you could end up assIMMOlAted with all the skin/lung-burning acids and gases in there.

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Mining landfills

This sort of stuff is considered, but sorting and recycling household waste is a commie plot that threatens our freedom.

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Not entirely so

There's two stages: bauxite to alumina, crush the bauxite and boil in caustic soda. Then turn the alumina into aluminium. It's that second stage that takes $900 worth (ish) of 'leccie per tonne. First stage costs perhaps $100 all in (ish).

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Zippy the Pinhead Re: methane

Bearing in mind how much of a greenhouse gas methane actually is, it would be better to put the organics into a digester, extract the methane, and burn it as a fuel. It would then be the less damaging CO2 and water, and we would have gotten some useful energy from it, and what eventually goes into the landfill would be less of a hazard.

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Just not valuable yet

I would say that knowing the location of these deposits is useful. Finite resources are just that - they will run out. It might not be financially viable yet to extract them, but when existing supplies begin to run out we already know where to find more and because of the value of a disappearing resource increases dramatically it would then be viable to extract them. It's much better to know where you can find more when you need to well in advance rather than have a mad panic trying to locate more when supplies are already low.

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@EyeCU

But would it be more financially viable to setup better recycling rather than sift silt? I'd have thought so myself but I have no knowledge in this area.

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Exactly

There are now people who are extracting gold and other ores from tailings which, when they were initially dug, weren't financially viable to bother about.

Now that the seams are played out and others are much harder to extract it becomes worthwhile to start dealing with what was originally thrown away as "rubbish".

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I agree

Recycling more would be a good start, however demand is likely to keep climbing and more will be needed. Take electric cars for example. If they are to replace petrol powered ones then much more lithium will be required. I read a report (don't know how true it is) that says if every car currently in use was replaced by an electric one, we wouldn't have enough lithium to provide all the batteries needed and so new sources of it needed to be found and here they are!

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Boffin

Re:Just not valuable yet

Finite resources are just that - finite. They do not have to run out of recycled properly.

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Anonymous Coward

@ravenviz: Anything finite can run out!

Let's assume there's enough Lithium on the planet to make 10 million electric car batteries.

And we want to have 11 million of them at the same time. Tough - you ran out.

It doesn't matter how good you are at recycling, if you need more of a given product than there are materials to make it, you can't do it.

Not to menton that eventually we'll run out of ways to increase entropy - there's no way to recycle that.

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Great...

We can all rest assured, the writer of this article won't try to get rich off these deposits. That's a relief.

Oh, wait, I was reading the news. Why am I supposed to care about this? Is it or is it not possible for this to work? If, with enough money, as stated, it is possible, why the negative, long-winded article to (mostly) the contrary?

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So, umm

The point of mentioning my own adventures in trying to extract from something very similar is to point out that, having tried something very similar, I couldn't make it work economically. Therefore, I don't think this will work economically.

Note, we could certainly get the rare earths if we spent enough money. But "enough" in this case is more than the rare earths are worth. Thus, while we can do it, not sensible to do it.

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People like you are why the economy is fucked...

Yes, it would be possible with enough money to extract rare earth metals from the sea floor. In fact with enough money pretty much anything is possible. However if it costs you $4 Million to get $2 worth of rare earth metals you'd be better of doing something else with that money, like giving it to me you can have my car or something.

Why should you care, well it's putting the original press release into context, i.e. just because the University of Fukushima* says there's lots of rare earth metals on the ocean floor it doesn't follow you should go and buy shares in Pacific Mineral Extraction Inc. or think we've solved the problem of how to make all the nice shiney tech that relies on the limited supplies of that sort of thing.

If that's all to complicated for you I have 2000 shares in Pacific Mineral Extraction Inc you can have for $2500.

*Not necessarily the originating body of the research

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Why

"Why am I supposed to care about this?"

Because one particular country may or may not be playing around with choking the present supply of said industrially important elements. So unless you were reading this article off an incised granite stele, you should care.

"Is it or is it not possible for this to work?"

Yes, it is possible. Given enough cause/reasons/necessity, another particular country, mentioned in the article, would like that first country to know that they won't just lie down. Coal to oil and all that.

"If, with enough money, as stated, it is possible, why the negative, long-winded article to (mostly) the contrary?"

Oh dear, because of the interesting questions raised in less pedestrian minds? Is this really international politics written in the dust? When does the impractical become necessity? What happens when a strategically important resource is not within your borders? Would Japanese ships mysteriously sink while Chinese subs "were not _anywhere_ near there!" Would Greenpeace take the heat? Who will be first out with "Earthly Concerns", Dan Brown or Tom Clancy?

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misunderstood

You, sir, appear to have completely missed the main point Tim Worstall was making. He never said getting the rare earths is technically impossible, just that it is - at this time - utterly economically unfeasible.

Not only would it take more money to extract the rare earths at the detected concentration than their current worth on the market, but you also have to deal with the byproduct - billions of tons of acidic silt.

Dumping them into the sea would bring any and all Greenpeace armour to the mining site with destruction of mining equipment on their minds.

Therefore, unless China completely cuts the rest of the world off their rare earths supplies, causing their prices to skyrocket, there is no way to make money off that silt.

Anybody attempting to do so would need to find a lot more valuables in the dirt - perhaps not just rare earths.

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Pirate

China/ media panic

They (read, mainstream, often panic driven, media) always tag in the line about china producing 97% of the worlds rare earth metals; all the articles I read about this went on to speculate that this could provide a way for the free countries of the world (insert your definition of such here) to reduce their reliance on chinese rare earths.

Never mind the fact that there are significant deposits elsewhere in the world (eg, the US) that have been mined in the past, but are no longer because they are not economically viable at the moment.

For as long as China/ anywhere can produce these minerals at significantly below the cost of other places, setting up a mine in those places will be a political decision, not an economic one.

I think the author was pointing out that this is not going to be a cheap solution to the political problem of the concentration of rare earth metal production in china; the general media, on the other hand, speculated that it would.

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Dunno

He seems to think that seafloor massive sulphides are in someway similar to the stuff you can dig out of ponds, rather being very similar to the actual stuff that is dug up out of mines* - and often has significantly higher metal content, with more than enough basic lead, copper and zinc in the mix to justify the extraction of the rest.

Japan is especially motivated to find alternative sources of rare earths because China has already used the threat of withholding its supplies of rare earths to exert political pressure on it, once, over a territorial dispute. World price of a economically vital resource is little use to you when the supplier is openly refusing to sell to you.

*(being of virtually the same origin, in most cases, since many terrestrial mining sites were once seafloor smokers)

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Isn't it obvious?

"If, with enough money, as stated, it is possible, why the negative, long-winded article to (mostly) the contrary?"

---

Because you would need much, much more money to extract and refine the ore than is its value.

If you want an example, it's possible - with enough money - to extract lignite from undersea deposits. Care to pay, say, 5.000 euro for a kilo of coal? Because that's how much it would cost to extract it.

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WTF?

"if, with enough money, as stated, it is possible ..."

"....why the negative, long-winded article?"

For the bleedin' obvious reason you'd spend more money extracting the metals, than they are worth, DUH !

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Well

The rest of it seems to be mostly Fe and Al2O3 (from the original paper) and that makes it even more like the red mud that we're already not processing.

The "ponds" I'm talking about BTW are the waste ponds from a previous mineral extraction process. Not just the pond in the village green.

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Facepalm

If Worstall can't do it then nobody can, goshdarnit!

"The point of mentioning my own adventures in trying to extract from something very similar is to point out that, having tried something very similar, I couldn't make it work economically. Therefore, I don't think this will work economically."

Hahaha.

You should submit this to the OED for when they update the entry for 'hubris'.

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FAIL

I wouldn't say hubris

I'd say that this Tim guy knows far more about rare earth extraction techniques then your average media hack or man in the street.

Or indeed your average commentard.

Or me, for that matter.

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@Richard 12

"I'd say that this Tim guy knows far more about rare earth extraction techniques then your average media hack or man in the street."

No doubt. But what Tim is actually saying in that quote is that he knows far more about it than all the experts involved in the research and the three highly respected academic institutions where they are based. Which is the very definition of hubris.

It's always a sign of a weak messageboard when a post gets multiple down votes but no material responses.

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No, not quite

The paper comes from geoscientists: not mining or extraction experts. In one BBC interview (or report of one) the lead author makes the point that he's no idea whether this is economic or not.

I do say I know more about the extraction of rare earths from this sort of material than geoscientists, yes. But only because this is actually my field: to the point that papers (proper, scientific, peer reviewed stuff) that look at methods of extracting rare earths from these sorts of materials have been known to say "as Worstall reports".

Plus the fact that I've spent tens of thousands on getting scientists to check the methods by which you might extract rare earths from these sorts of materials.

I'll agree that there are huge swathes of the world that I know nothing at all about. This specific one is one where I'm alarmingly well informed.

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@Tim Worstall

Do you have some citations?

No offence intended, but Google Scholar (PBUH) doesn't bring up any academic papers either with you as a contributer or citing you as an expert. It does bring up quite a few references to you as a blogger, as does a vanilla Google search.

You made a straightforward statement that your inability to make a success of something demonstrates that it can't be done.

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Pirate

Bioconcentration is the thing here...

The only way to get hold of these rare earth metals is going to be by bio-concentrating them, and this is going to require explicitly engineered extremophile bacteria which can tolerate extremely acidic conditions and pull the minerals out of solution, and bind them into some form of biomolecule. It would also be helpful in the extreme if the biomolecule or the bacterium did something useful, like float on the top of a solution pond so that the slimy gunge with the metals in could be easily collected.

The interesting thing here is that this is not a list of impossible demands; there exists all the components needed to engineer such an organism. The only real stumbling-block here is legislative; most sane countries don't let you release genetically engineered bacteria out into the environment without strict licencing.

So, expect this sort of thing to kick off in China or Russia very, very soon...

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Paris Hilton

The problem with optimising is ...

... that a competitor might just sell at a dollar or two below the alternative ocean floor projected price.

Once decision has been made to cancel open floor minerals, the optimiser can up price and so forth in a seesawing manner.

To be doubly embarrassing the optimiser might wait until lots of research costs, equipment costs da-de-dah have been spent and production goes online. Optimiser drops price by 90% knowing that purchasing decisions will leave the new supplier with incredible debt.

Ah capitalism?

Doncha jus luv it?

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Even If It Were Ore

I thought that since mischmetal, used in lighter flints, is cheap and common, there was no problem with China having a monopoly on the raw mineral - so new sources of the mineral won't have any impact. The real problem is that the separation of the different rare earth metals from one another - since they're very similar chemically - is difficult and awkward. Almost - but, fortunately, not quite - as bad as separating different isotopes of the same element. And only China has the installed plant to do this at the moment.

So building facilities to refine rare-earth metals is what has to be done. Finding new sources of ore is irrelevant.

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Yes....

You're right, I'm certain I've made that very point here on El Reg myself in fact.....

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No Doubt

You doubtless have, and perhaps even in that very article. But I felt it bore repeating, because I saw that point omitted in so many reports of this story in conventional newspapers.

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Simple techniques...

It may be that there is a simple technique (oil flocculation/centrifuging - or more likely some cheap but very nasty pollutant) that can increase the rare earth concentration to a much more usable level in situ.

This could very cheaply be put into a large underwater vehicle and we could seriously fuck up a previously untouched part of our environment.

I say cheaply - when you consider you don’t have to move millions of tons of rock and hold a very heavy roof up to get to it it looks a pretty good option.

All a company needs to do is find some way of patenting an obvious part of it to keep out the competition and keep prices high...

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Facepalm

Failing to learn from previous hoaxes?

Not "Manganese Nodules" again!

That's 'Manganese' spelled R-U-S-S-I-A-N S-U-B.

I can remember picture books from my youth in the mid 70's that had fantastic illustrations of sea-bed mining of all those nodules; shame it all just turned out to be a shaggy dog story from the CIA.

I seem to recall you can also get gold from seawater in theory, too.

Perhaps spend the money on an asteroid mining mission, and find a nice juicy metallic asteroid that will supply us for a couple of centuries? Probably has a better chance of returning a profit; and might not totally fuck up a large patch of ocean, as I am sure this mining would.

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Here are the present winners..

Quest recently "unearthed" (pardon the pun) a very rich heavy rare earth metals deposit in Canada - it's so big it's got complete nations fighting over it.

I find it interesting that the BBC report about this find also repeats this 97% figure - it is simply not correct if you take the market as a whole. They have 97% of light, but only 1..2% of heavy rare earth metals, and the entire planet seems to be involved in keeping it that way..

If you're interested, Quests's site has some interesting pictures about the whole exploration side of things. It seems exploration (the stage before mining) is an interesting trade in itself.

That is, if you don't have a social life - this stuff can happen at seriously remote places..

http://www.questrareminerals.com/

Declaration of interest: there is none, I just met their CEO once at an event dinner. I'm not into exploration or metal trading, but it's always cool to learn about how things work :-).

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Anonymous Coward

Nice article

particularly enjoyed the definition of ore vs dirt - cool that it can be an accounting/arithmetical thing.

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Boffin

Hughes Glomar Explorer

So what's the problem? Just use the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The thing was built in 1973-74 to do exactly this, except at the time, they were going after extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor.

Oh, wait! That was just the cover....

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GSF_Explorer

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Childcatcher

I know where to find loads

...your local landfill.

All we need now is to ship it off for processing to some third world country with a liberal view on child labour, environmental protection and healthy and safety.

Oh wait...we do that already. Never mind - carry on.

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Another South Sea Bubble?

Who gains (other than the promoters)?

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Anonymous Coward

other deposits

There are vast rare earth element deposits in the US, but with a fixed Chinese yuan against the dollar, coupled with cheap Chinese labor, the US ore deposits have become dirt. The gov't and military are interested in reopening the US mines, which would be vastly cheaper that undersea extraction.

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Boffin

hmmm

Given the environmental record of Japanese firms, I wonder what will happen to the acid and red mud.

Waiting for a response from Greenpeace on this issue

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Nodules!

This story sounds awfully like all the excitement over manganese nodules in the 1960s and 70s.

For those of tender years; huge areas of the deep ocean are covered with potato-shaped chunks of manganese ore which geologists (being ever creative) called manganese nodules. So in the 1960s everyone got excited that we'd never run out of manganese...

...apart from no one knew how to get the nodules to the surface or to refine them economically, and then we realised we weren't running out of manganese any time soon. Which was good, because any attempt to trawl them from the ocean bottom would have been an ecological catastrophe.

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That's simply a matter

of economics, if the price of rare earths goes high enough, the dirt becomes ore.

But it seems there are easier sources to exploit first, the red mud mentioned for example.

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Hold On...

This is exactly the argument used for not mining shale for oil 30 years ago, when it was 18 USD a barrel.

When a barrel passed the 70USD mark, the economics changed somewhat.

So, assuming our penchant for rare earths isn't going to deminish anytime soon, at wat point WOULD it become economically viable to dump massive quantities of acid in the oceans so we can continue to buy a new iFeun every six months ?

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Manganese Nodules on the sea floor

There was a lot of interest in mining sea-floor manganese nodules in the '70s. It never worked out, but it did provide a cover story for Project Azorian, the "mining project" that was actually an attempt to recover part of a lost Russian nuclear missile submarine.

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