Rocks mined from the seafloor have been confirmed as a viable source for rare earth metals, and thus a tiny piece of the ocean might soon find its way into a mobile phone or computer chipboard near you. The finding, published in the April 2014 issue of Applied Geochemistry, all but guarantees a new round of focus on overcoming the challenges—both industrial and environmental—of extracting mineral riches from the ocean depths.
According to the paper, large deposits of ferromanganese—such as the lumpy nodule seen above—offer a new industrial source for minerals that could be used in everyday technologies, like mobile phones and solar panels. These minerals could thus replace some of the geopolitically difficult to reach—but, despite their name, mineralogically quite common—rare earth metals currently used.
In fact, these subsea deposits are "ubiquitous in the oceanic realm," the authors write. However, they only form by way of "slow precipitation out of relatively cold ambient seawater" and, even then, "grow very slowly with rates of some millimetres per million years." Nonetheless, they exist in great concentrations—and they are economically viable for the future of high-tech gadgetry. This finding promises—or perhaps threatens, depending on your environmental view—to help make large-scale mining of the seafloor a reality.
Particular ocean zones are more likely than others to be exploited. As the authors explain, these nodules are found primarily in abyssal plains, particularly in the so-called Clarion Clipperton Zone of the central Pacific, suggesting an earlier glimpse of where future ocean sacrifice areas might be located as whole abyssal plains are re-zoned for industrial extraction.
The environmental impact of seabed mining should not be underestimated, however, and it is precisely this uncertainty that has justifiably held the industry at bay for so long. However, as the economic rewards of mineral exploitation of the deep sea become clear—the treasure hidden at the bottom of the sea—we will no doubt see faster passage of at least preliminary mining rights for firms eager to get in on the sea rush. [Discovery News, Applied Geochemistry]