There is a shortage of critical materials needed for common consumer needs, such as, a cell phone battery, all the way up the chain to military defense needs. One area of the world has yet to be fully explored, and arguably exploited: Our oceans.
The sea floor is believed to be rich with many of the rare earth elements we need for our increasingly technologically-advanced lives. Late last year, MatEdU News profiled JCDREAM and its efforts to search for sustainable alternatives, “earth-abundant materials,” to supplement the rare earth mineral shortage. We discussed how there are benefits to ocean mining, but also an unknown number of risks to it as well.
In a compelling story, investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, who hosts the weekly TV program, Full Measure, explored “The Battle Below.” In the episode, Attkisson explains how a national emergency has developed “over U.S. access to some rare earth elements, and why it’s become a new cold war with China.”
She interviewed a number of marine experts, among them, oceanographer and biologist Tim Shank. According to the Full Measure episode:
“When he’s on dry ground he works at Woods Hole, the Massachusetts coast town that’s given its name to one the world’s leading marine research organizations: The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But his research goes deep, to the furthest reaches of the ocean as far as 35-thousand feet beneath the surface.
“Shank: When I started 20 years ago, the conversation of mineral resources and mining and harvesting from the deep sea wasn’t even a topic, and now it’s a topic of almost every conversation. Every deep sea biology meeting we have is discussing deep sea mining at the forefront.”
As the show and our research makes clear, deep-sea mining is possibly worth in the trillions of dollars. Many of the rare earth minerals mentioned in our earlier post about JCDREAM highlight this issue as one we have to solve, but more importantly, get right – meaning we have to do this right because we only get one chance. There are rare elements at the bottom of the ocean that may hold the key to future, life-saving medical advances as well as possible insights into climate change. Woods Hole and others are racing to try and answer important questions about the impact and opportunity the ocean floor offers humanity and the planet.
Here’s the full Deepsea Challenger. Deep ocean research has relied on submersible vehicles such as this one, but increasingly remotely controlled drones and robots are coming online and proving safer and sometimes more capable.
As mentioned in our earlier post, you can learn more about critical materials with these sources:
- Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2020. “Critical Materials Factsheet.” Pub. No. CSS14-15. NOTE: This factsheet has some terrific graphics to show which materials are in a critical stage (lack of supply) to non-critical.
- The American Geosciences Institute also provides a great overview: What are rare earth elements, and why are they important? that includes a variety of links to the USGS and other helpful sites.