Our dependence on foreign oil sucks, but it's nothing to our dependence on foreign rare earth metals, which are things like gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium that enable us to fulfill our lust for complex technology. China produces some 97% of the world's supply and they've been stingy as of late, but a new seafloor discovery may change all that.
While China currently produces almost all of the world's rare earths, Japan by itself accounts for a third of the world's demand. In 2009, China decided to reduce its export quotas, and in 2010 it reduced them again by 35%, driving up prices and putting Japan in a tough spot.
Looking for alternate sources, Japan started poking around on bottom of the ocean, and lo and behold, one third of the samples they took were absolutely packed with rare earth metals, especially in international waters around Tahiti and Hawaii:
"The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometer (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption," said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo.
He estimated rare earths contained in the deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion metric tons, compared to global reserves currently confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey of just 110 million tonnes that have been found mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries, and the United States.
The idea of harvesting metals from the bottom of the ocean is not a new one; Howard Hughes built a huge $3.6 billion manganese nodule mining ship called the Glomar Explorer back in the '70s. As it turned out, Glomar Explorer was actually not a mining ship and instead was commissioned by the CIA to steal a sunken Russian nuclear submarine from 16,000 feet below the north Pacific Ocean. Of course, that doesn't mean that undersea mining is a bad idea or anything, just that there's lots of other exciting stuff going on down there, too.
Anyway, the actual process of seafloor mining will likely involve pumping up massive amounts of mud and then leeching the metals out with acid right there on the mining ship. Within a few hours, between 80% and 90% of the metals can be extracted, which sounds like a very efficient way to go. There's no time frame on the table just yet, but with enormous financial pressure to locate and harvest new sources of rare earths, you can bet we'll start seeing some results within the next five to 10 years.