Explorers are scouring the lands, racing to find new deposits of precious rare earth elements. But new supplies of these vital green technology metals might be found in less traditional mining locations, like deep below the sea and even out in space.
Putting the REE in gREEn technologies
Current supplies are barely enough to satisfy our insatiable thirst for rare earths (REE), a group of essential elements used in high-tech gadgets and sustainable green technologies.
REE’s make the world’s strongest permanent magnets that are also small and lightweight. For this reason, minute but essential amounts of these elements are found in your smartphone screen and speakers, hybrid car batteries, solar panels and catalytic converters. REE’s make the super-strong magnets for ever-lighter laptops. Larger volumes are used to make super-strong magnets in massive wind turbines.
They’re not as rare – or even as earthly – as the name implies. The rarest rare earth element is nearly 200 times more abundant than gold and they are even found on the moon. Accumulations of rare earths are usually not found alone and extracting them is a messy and complex process.
China currently dominates global production but demand is exceeding supply worldwide. We’re combing the land, the sea and even our moon to find more but just how far will we go to satisfy our need for REE’s?
Recovering REE’s from wastewater
Researchers have successfully recovered rare earths from industrial wastewater using nano-sized collectors to hook the precious elements as they flow past.
Knowing that nanomaterials are effective at removing some metals and dyes from wastewater, a group of Chinese researchers investigated tried using flower-like nano-magnesium hydroxide, or nano-Mg(OH)2, to recover REE’s from wastewater.
They were successful. Even at low-concentrations they were able to recycle almost 100% of the REE’s in the fast-flowing wastewater in a pilot-scale experiment.Immobilising REEs using this method has wide-ranging practical applications for recycling valuable REEs from wastewater at a high flow rate.
Bounty of the sea
Developing recycling processes for REE’s, like the one described above, are critical but new sources still need to be identified.
If the social and environmental hurdles of deep sea mining can be overcome, there are several economic sources of rare earths deep under the sea.
Polymetallic nodules, metal-rich rocky lumps that litter the deep sea floor, could be collected and harvested for the manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare-earth elements they contain.
Economic concentrations of REE’s may also be found in deep sea mud. Researchers recently mapped high concentrations of rare-earth elements and yttrium in mud at numerous sites throughout the eastern South and central North Pacific.
But any project setting out to extract REEs or other precious resource from several kilometers below sea level has enormous social and environmental issues to resolve. Although the sources of these precious resources have been identified, demand is high and technologies are advanced enough to begin deep sea mining, it will likely be many years before deep sea mining of REE’s becomes a reality.
Now if you thought extracting resources from 4km below sea level was difficult, imagine recovering them from space! Despite mining and processing more REE’s each year come than any other place on earth, China’s Jade Rabbit lunar mission is on it’s way to the moon in search of more.
Launched on 2 Dec 2013 the mission is setting out to explore the Moon’s surface and look for natural resources, including REE’s.
Money is the main limitation, according to top Chinese scientist, Prof Ouyang Ziyuan, of the department of lunar and deep space exploration.
“The Moon is full of resources – mainly rare earth elements, titanium, and uranium, which the Earth is really short of, and these resources can be used without limitation,” he says in an interview with the BBC.
“But it’s unnecessary to get them now because it’s very costly.”
Perhaps we should cross the moon option off the list for now. As I was about to post this article, I read that poor Jade Rabbit rover may not survive its mission. In a heartfelt message from the moon, Jade Rabbit has signed off with:
“If this journey must come to an early end, I am not afraid. Whether or not the repairs are successful, I believe even my malfunctions will provide my masters with valuable information and experience. Even so, I know I may not make it through this lunar night.”
A message read on smartphones and laptops across China and across the world, each relying on small quantities of rare earth elements.
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