The Hunt for Rare Earths Turns Seaward
If the 19th-century U.S. western expansion was catalyzed by the lure of gold, today’s technology boom is fueled significantly by the availability of dysprosium, neodymium, and lanthanum. The so-called rare earth metals have become essential to the operation of technologies ranging from smart phones to hybrid car engines.
China’s domination of the production of these elements has led to geopolitical friction, especially in the relationship between China and Japan, which is a major importer of rare earth metals from China. As a result, Japan has begun to identify new sources of the elements on the Pacific seabed, which Japanese scientists claim holds a wealth of rare earth metals.
Harvesting these materials from the ocean floor is currently cost-prohibitive, but increased commodity prices and demand could fuel exploratory mining in the Pacific. An alternative strategy would be to minimize or eliminate the use of rare earth elements in new products altogether, following nature’s example of employing a relatively small number of elements—such as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—as building blocks for living organisms.