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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rare Earths Indeed

Today the New York Times has an article on Rare-Earths.  No, not planets - elements.  The group of elements known as Rare Earth Elements (REEs), otherwise known as the Lanthanides.  REEs are found way down near the bottom of the periodic table - in that strange extra couple of rows that are usually ignored by people who aren't into chemistry.  Below the REEs are the actinide elements - which include the two highly radioactive elements Uranium & Thorium.

But REEs are extremely useful elements, having many different commercial applications - computer memory chips, superconductors, fiber optics, lasers, and many others.  However, access to REEs has been extremely limited in the past year since China, which mines ~95% of the world's REEs, imposed a ban on exporting these valuable elements.  The article in today's NYTimes is on the discovery that certain nodules at the bottom of the ocean - called manganese nodules - many contain REEs, enough to make them profitable for mining.

Manganese nodules have been known about for decades - they occur as small little balls of rocky material at the ocean floor, roughly the size of a softball.  Access to them, however, is technologically difficult, and mining them for, guess what, manganese, has not been terribly successful financially.  The presence of REEs in these nodules, however, might push them over the top economically.

If these do become economically profitable, it would be a new source for these valuable elements.  However, mining the deep seafloor is costly, not only in dollars, but in potential environmental damage to marine life, and also in terms of international relations.  After all, who owns the seafloor?  Who has the rights to mine it?  These questions will continue to be driven by our thirst for goods.