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New Rare Earth Deposits: A Non-Solution For A Non-Problem



Above: the report on the “Financial Post” of April 13, 2018. The study that the report describes is not just a bad paper, but something highlighting the shortcomings of our whole society in understanding and managing mineral depletion.

Any report on mineral availability that starts with “a semi-infinite deposit” should be taken with great caution. About this one on rare earths, I’d say that calling it “clueless” is way too kind. But there is nothing to do: the term “rare” in the concept of “rare earth minerals” rattles so much inside people’s minds that they imagine both a non-existing crisis and non-existing solutions.

So, what do we have here? A grand claim about rare earth resources that comes from a paper recently published in Nature. Let’s go see it.

The term “tremendous” in the title of a scientific paper should ring more than a few bells in one’s mind, but let’s go to the meat of the paper, what did the authors found, exactly? Basically, that the concentration of rare earths and yttrium (that they call REY) in the mud of some areas at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is much larger than the average concentration in the earth’s crust.

So far, so good. Then, since the areas examined are large, the authors go on to conclude that the amounts of rare earths available are so large that they can be considered as “semi-infinite” (the term is straight from the paper, it is not an invention of the journalist of the “Financial Post.”)

The authors also claim that using a “hydrocyclone treatment,” rare earths and yttrium can be extracted from the mud. Then, you would ask at what cost, but the only instance of the term “cost” in the paper appears when they say:

Because the amount of the resource is enormous, improving the ore grade will greatly enhance the economic value of the mud even if the recovery yield is somewhat lower than that we observed. A decrease in mud weight and volume will directly lead to reductions in smelting costs.

You wonder what Nature uses reviewers for, right? But, apart from meaningless paragraphs like this one, the problem is fundamental: extraction is not a question of amounts, it is a question of cost and the cost is directly related to grade. This basic point is never discussed in this paper, except for defining the underwater deposits as “extremely high grade.” (and note that they use the term 18 times in the paper!)

“Extremely high grade,” you say? From the maps of figure 2 in the paper, it turns out that for most of the area explored the concentration is well below 2,000 ppm, that is less than 0.2%. In the text, the authors say “REY-rich mud having a maximum of almost 8,000 ppm (0.8%) of total REY content (ΣREY) was confirmed.” Elsewhere in the paper, they speak of larger concentrations, but it seems that they refer to special areas.

So, is 0.2% an “extremely high grade”? Well, high ore grade, in this case, may be all in the eye of the beholder. Let’s compare with what we have on land. There is a recent review by Paulick and Machacek of the situation of rare earth extraction. It is a long and complex story, but the gist of it is that it is difficult to extract rare earths for a total concentration of oxides below 1%. Many mines operate on ore grades higher than 1%, some even 6%-8%. Paulick and Machacek state thatOverall, it could be assumed that deposits in the 2–4 wt% grade range may be in a position to add to global REE production at competitive operation costs.

There follows that the “extremely high grade” ores found by the Japanese researchers at the bottom of the ocean are well below what we need in order to be extractable at costs compatible with the present market conditions. 

And that doesn’t take into account that these ores are at the bottom of the ocean, which is an additional costs which the authors recognize but don’t quantify, limiting themselves to state that “if a hydrocyclone can be operated in-situ on the deep-sea floor, it would be possible to reduce lifting costs,” Yes, and as Lewis Carroll said, “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Finally, there is no mention of the impact on the ecosystemic of lifting untold billion tons of materials from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  

You see how bad this study is, but the problem is not so much the hype (“semi-infinite amounts,” “extremely high grade,” “tremendous potential,” etc.) – after all, hyping one’s minor discoveries to turn them into major breakthrough has become a cottage industry in science. The problem is worse. 

The problem is that these claims go straight to the media and are not challenged or, if they are, the challenge is not visible to the public. For the layman, the impression may well be that there are “semi-infinite” rare earth resources, which is not the case. But it is not even the case that we are “running out” of anything. Depletion is not about running out, depletion is about increasing extraction costs and if the extraction of something costs more than what you can afford to pay, then you may as well say that you “ran out” of it. But it is a different story and we aren’t there yet with rare earths: we have time to adapt by using less and recycling.

Still, it seems to be impossible to pass this message to a society whose behavior can be best described as “knee-jerk” reactions – that is, showing only two states of understanding of the situation: complacency or panic (quote by James Schlesinger). It is not the only case in which society as a whole completely misunderstands what the real problems are (just think of climate). 

And, as usual, we march into the future blindfolded and along a narrow path with cliffs on both sides

Image h/t Max De Carlo.To know more, you may wish to read my book Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

4 Comments on "New Rare Earth Deposits: A Non-Solution For A Non-Problem"

  1. Outcast_Searcher on Sat, 12th May 2018 9:38 pm 

    Oh dear. The doomers are upset that rare earths are not so rare as they thought. So now to trot out the FUD that we’re doomed, no matter what.

    Meanwhile in the real world, Tesla has pointed out that it needs MUCH less Cobalt than previously for its new Model 3 cells, making the panic over Cobalt needs seem overblown. And indeed, Cobalt prices have been trending down significantly the past couple of months.

    But my all means, Cassandra on. At least the dommer porn fans will appreciate it.

  2. makati1 on Sat, 12th May 2018 10:06 pm 

    Outcast, it is there but it is not accessible at the price China can sell it. Rare earths are not mined as a major mineral. They are a byproduct of mining for a more profitable mineral. The Us could not be up and running with a mine and refinery in less than 5 – 10 years, IF it started now.

    Who gives a fuck what loser Tesla says. Musk is the biggest snake oil salesman and liar in America today, outside of DC.

  3. Cloggie on Sun, 13th May 2018 3:19 am 

    Bardi is determined to remain in the “we’re f* mode”, regardless and as such service his reader base, who expects nothing else from him.

    The article is written by a large number of Japanese, who merely talk about the POTENTIAL:

    What they refer to is that there has been found a large deposit of “rare” earth materials, that’s it.

    1.2 million ton in a small area of 105 km2, worth several decades global consumption.

    The stuff is there. Period.

    That is mighty interesting in itself. Now the question arises: can we develop technology to harvest the stuff at affordable prices and minimal environmental cost? The Japanese do not talk about the cost, probably because they do not know.

    But Bardi pretends that he knows and that it is all not going to work. Case closed, QED, doomer story rescued.

    Please buy my book here and I am too lazy to update my conclusions, just because a couple of Japanese are peeing in my soup:

  4. makati1 on Sun, 13th May 2018 3:34 am 

    Ah, but, Cloggie, will the world financial system support the recovery and/or use of that material? That is the huge question, which is why I go not debate peak anything. It all depends on profit (return on investment).

    The oceans contain more gold than has ever been mined in all of history, but it will never leave the ocean waters. Not physically worth the energy needed to recover it. Ever. Ditto for clams of new “discoveries” of anything. As you said, they have no idea if it is even practical (cost efficient) to recover it. No profit. No recovery.

    China already has the system in place to do so and will undercut any new attempt to compete. Not to mention that any new mine and refinery is years away, at least. If ever.

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