China begins new search for seabed minerals — including rare earths
In a week where China has landed a space probe on the Moon, it is appropriate to look at what this emerging superpower is doing at the other extreme: the ocean floor. It has been announced that the submersible Jiaolong will early next year explore for minerals in the northwest Pacific and the southwest Indian Ocean — and rare earths are among the targets.
Welcome to the next big flashpoint in the world’s never-ending search for mineral resources: ocean-bed mining. There are two problems. One, is widespread opposition, mainly from environmental groups, to the ecological implications; for example, plans to extract iron sands offshore from the North Island have stirred robust opposition in New Zealand.
Two, there is the territorial issue. Just this week, Toronto’s Globe & Mail reported that a territorial dispute is looming with Russia after the Harper government in Ottawa ordered a rewrite of Canada’s international claim for Arctic seabed rights — including at the North Pole. This means the two countries will have overlapping claims. The newspaper said that, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can secure control of the ocean floor beyond the internationally recognized 200 nautical mile limit if it can demonstrate the seabed is an extension of its continental shelf.
Luckily for Japan, its rare earth discoveries under the ocean floor lie within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
China is, by contrast, looking well beyond its EEZ — although its territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea may, if successful, see that EEZ extended.
Now China Daily reports that China is accelerating its efforts to tap what it sees as vast metal deposits on the ocean floor. The Jiaolong, carried by its mother ship Xiangyanghong 99, will spend 40 days in the northwest Pacific and 40 to 50 days in the southwest Indian Ocean. The paper says the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association has won the right (from the International Seabed Authority) to explore for cobalt crusts in these areas.
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Cobalt crusts are rich in iron and hydroxide deposits containing significant concentrations of cobalt, titanium, nickel, platinum, molybdenum, tellurium, cerium and other metals and rare earth elements. Polymetallic sulphides contain base metals that include copper, lead and zinc, as well as gold and silver.
Back in September the Jiaolong, which is China’s first manned deep-sea submersible, completed a two month trial in the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea which included 21 dives. It brought back 161 polymetallic samples, 32 rocks and 180kg of sediment.
The Jiaolong is a “manned” submersible: this next trip, though, it will also be “womaned”. The six new oceanaut recruits include two woman, Zhang Yi from Harbin Engineering University and Zhao Shengya from Dalian Maritime University.
Two years ago, the journal Nature Geoscience ran a paper by a group of Japanese scientists which asserted that several types of seafloor sediment harbour high concentrations of rare earth elements, but that REE (and notably yttrium) data was insufficient on which to base estimates. The team were reporting on their
measurements of the elemental composition of over 2,000 seafloor sediments, sampled at depth intervals of around one metre, at 78 sites that cover a large part of the Pacific Ocean.
The extract noted: “We show that deep-sea mud contains high concentrations of rare-earth elements and yttrium at numerous sites throughout the eastern South and central North Pacific. We estimate that an area of just one square kilometre, surrounding one of the sampling sites, could provide one-fifth of the current annual world consumption of these elements. Uptake of rare-earth elements and yttrium by mineral phases such as hydrothermal iron-oxyhydroxides and phillipsite seems to be responsible for their high concentration. We show that rare-earth elements and yttrium are readily recovered from the mud by simple acid leaching, and suggest that deep-sea mud constitutes a highly promising huge resource for these elements“.
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