In the tiny isle of Minami-tori-shima, scientists have discovered a huge deposit of rare earth elements. The lode is not physically located on the island but in the clay sediment in the south of the seamount that the island sits on. The super deposits are bits of fish scales, teeth and bones that form the element traps.
Scientists from Japan have calculated that the clay, which covers a 2500 km2 zone in the south of the island, can supply four of the earth’s rare elements’ requirements for hundreds of years.
Rare earth elements have many uses in today’s world and enable firms and individuals alike to capitalize on or generate renewable energy. These elements are used in smartphones, TVs, compact fluorescent bulbs, LED or rechargeable batteries for cars. Additionally, many military and medical technologies use them as well. This has significantly increased the consumption of these elements in the last decade.
It should be noted though that referring to these elements as rare does not mean that they are actually rare. The rare part comes in when trying to find the elements in a deposit that is minable.
Scientific Reports recently published a paper in June, where a team of Japanese scientists dated the fish fossils in the Minami-tori-shima isle and a similar site located in the South Pacific area, southeast of the Manihiki Plateau. Their aim was to discover the origin of the fossils as well as determine whether there might be other deposits elsewhere.
Their findings showed that the fish fossils were 34.4 million years old and their deposits at the Minami-tori-shima are a result of the planetary cooling that formed the Antarctic ice sheet. These fossils are mostly bones which are made of phosphate and calcium. According to the study’s co-author, Junichiro Ohta, fossilized phosphate is good at ensnaring rare earth elements. In the last 34 million years, the fish fossils slowly absorbed europium, yttrium, dysprosium and terbium from the fluid that is trapped in the clay sediments. Although the mud is highly patchy, it contains roughly 20,000 parts per million of various rare earth elements.
The team of scientists from Japan also calculated that the south of Minami-tori-shima contained 16 million tons of rare earth elements that could supply the world for between 420 to 780 years at the current consumption rates.
Currently though, as the fossils are located below more than 3 miles of water, no commercial mining operation has found a way to access the minerals. Additionally, many have concerns about the biodiversity consequences of extracting the fossils through deep-sea mining. According to a study in Trends in Ecology and Evolution that was published on July 31, the costs of mining this seabed have been underestimated and are potentially high. How high a cost is too high? Only seasoned mining companies like Energy Fuels Inc. (NYSE: American: UUUU) (TSX: EFR) can tell!
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