Tech & Science

This Patch of Pacific Ocean Seabed Holds 'Semi-infinite' Supply of Minerals Crucial for Modern Life

Our global thirst for the rare earth elements used in everything from cell phones to hybrid cars has never been higher. But, these crucial minerals can be very hard to access.

A trove of rare earth elements ripe for mining, however, is hiding in mud deep below the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Now, researchers have worked out that a patch of seabed just 100 square-miles in size holds enough of the minerals to feed the entire demand of the planet on a “semi-infinite basis.”

The patch of mud contains more than 16 million tons of elusive rare earth elements, researchers reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

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The area offers "great potential as ore deposits for some of the most critically important elements in modern society," the researchers from a number of Japanese universities, companies and government institutions, wrote in the journal. The region, they added, holds hundreds of years' worth of rare earth elements.

4_11_Mobile phone A person taps the screen of a cell phone. Rare earth elements are used to make such devices. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

The elements are used to make the magnets that drive motors in washing machines, fluorescent lights and even wind turbines. Found in the Earth's crust, they’re actually not that rare at all. But, the minerals are often hard to get at—dispersed too widely to efficiently mine.

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Under the sea, hydrothermal vents churn out the minerals which, over time, accumulate in mud on the sea floor. The team extracted the valuable minerals by churning the mud through a machine called a hydrocyclone separator. This device divides different materials according to density. Consequently, researchers were able to extract tiny grains of calcium phosphate rich with rare earth elements.

Operating a machine like this on the seabed, if possible, would filter out some of the unnecessary sludge, greatly reducing the total amount of mud that needs to be lifted to the surface.

With efficient mineral processing, the researchers wrote, this massive reservoir could yield its valuable rare earth elements soon.

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