Uncharted Territory: Sourcing REEs In Space And Under The Sea
A recent concern surrounding the ever-increasing demand for new technology is the increasing prices and energy costs to extract the rare earth metals and materials used in producing it. The questions now being asked by many is, “Will there be enough for us to continue our current high-tech lifestyle while continuing to transition to a renewable energy economy? Will we need to find new sources to meet future demand?” With the growth in demand of high-tech products and renewable energy, studies project that to transition the majority of our power and energy sources to renewables, the amount of rare earth metals needed would be hundreds of times more that we are currently mining. Although most rare earth metals are relatively common on earth’s surface, to extract them is both economically and environmentally exhaustive.
In response to that, some companies have been looking for rare earth materials in unexpected areas: on the seabed and asteroids circling the Earth. In 2011, a Japanese team found deposits of rare earth metals in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean; materials collected from just one square kilometer in this part of the ocean will be able to provide one fifth of the annual global consumption. There have also been recent discoveries of precious metals and other in-demand earth materials near active volcanic fissure in various oceans. These are huge discoveries; however extracting materials from that deep in the ocean will be both costly and time-consuming. Considering the potential damage to marine ecosystems, much more research and planning has to occur before any of sort seabed mining begins.
In addition to searching the ocean floors, companies have been looking at asteroids as a future source of rare earth metals. Planetary Resources, a company pioneering the search for REEs in space, claims that many of the metals needed in modern technology can be found in much higher concentrations that here on earth. That means more materials can be sourced from equally sized mines. There is, however, the extraordinary costs to consider associated with creating a mine on an asteroid. It may be decades before any significant extraction of materials comes from either potential location.