The BBC and other media outlets have reported on the discovery of “vast deposits” of rare-earth minerals in the mud of the Pacific Ocean floor. This is described as significant, on the grounds that rare-earth elements are used in the manufacture of components in mobile phones and other consumer electronic devices.
In the mainstream media this previously embargoed story has been given prominence, if not hyped, owing to its supposed industrial relevance. However, caution is advised, as the story is not all it’s cracked up to be.
The Pacific ocean mineral discovery is certainly of significant scientific interest, but, in practical terms, so what if 100 billion tonnes of rare-earth elements are to be found on the ocean floor? We are talking here of depths of up to 6,000 metres, in which case mining the minerals will be an immense challenge, to say the least.
China currently controls around 97% of the global supply of rare-earth elements and yttrium, although it possesses just one-third of the world’s reserves. Also, China’s dominates the market in the heavy rare-earth elements used in electric vehicle batteries and flat-screen televisions; it is not a major player when it comes to the minerals used to mass-produce electronic capacitors for devices sold on the high street. That is where African countries such as the Congo are hugely important, with coltan mining helping fuel civil wars in the region. Tantalum from coltan is used in the capacitors found in mobile phones, DVD players, games consoles and computers.
If the “analysts” referred to by the BBC are claiming that the Pacific Ocean discovery will challenge China’s dominance of the world’s rare-earth mineral supply, then one has to question the analysts’ competence. A cynic might even suggest that these are the very same pundits who make a living from largely ignorant speculation on consumer electronic products and trends.
Further reading: Kato et al., “Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements”, Nature Geoscience (2011)