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Deep sea rocks may be future source for rare earth metals
by Brooks Hays
Bremen, Germany (UPI) Apr 16, 2013

China to appeal WTO rare earth ruling: govt
Beijing (AFP) April 17, 2014 - China will appeal a ruling by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that its export restrictions on rare earths and other resources broke international rules, the commerce ministry said on Thursday.

The WTO's disputes settlement body decided last month that China's export duties and quotas, plus limits on who could trade in the rare earths tungsten and molybdenum -- which are key raw materials for hi-tech goods -- skewed global commerce against other nations.

The panel of independent trade and legal experts backed a complaint lodged in 2012 with the WTO by the United States, the European Union and Japan.

"China will go all out to make an appeal," commerce ministry spokesman Shen Danyang told reporters.

"No matter what the result of the appeal is, China's policy goal of protecting resources and the environment will not change."

The government will "continue to strengthen management" of its resources in accordance with WTO rules and "protect fair competition", he added.

China accounts for 95 percent of global production of rare earths, a term covering 18 metals which are vital for many industrial and hi-tech processes such as the production of smartphones, hybrid car batteries, wind turbines, steel and low-energy light bulbs.

But given that it is home to 23 percent of global reserves of such metals, China has raised concerns about over-exploitation.

It insists that its measures, imposed in 2011, are aimed at conserving natural resources and reducing pollution caused by mining.

The plaintiffs countered that China sought to drive up export prices and gain market advantage for domestic producers with cheaper access to the raw materials.

"The extracting country cannot limit the sales of its raw materials to its domestic industry, giving them a competitive edge over foreign firms," the WTO ruling said.

Smart phones are ubiquitous, but the materials they're made of are "rare" -- at least rare enough to be called rare earth metals.

In recent years, economists and geologists have begun worrying that the world's supply of rare earth metals will be outpaced by demand, driving up the prices of materials vital to the production of popular electronics like the iPhone and Blackberry.

But a new study, published this week in the journal Applied Geochemistry, suggests humans could extract rare earth metals from the solid nodes of iron and manganese found strewn across much of the deep ocean floor.

Rare earth elements, or rare earth metals -- including scandium, yttrium, praseodymium and dysprosium -- are a group of 17 naturally occurring elements on the periodic table that share similar chemical properties. They're used to make a variety of household products like florescent light bulbs and color TVs, as well as larger technologies like solar panels and wind turbines.

Rare earth metals aren't as rare as their name lets on, but they are hard to come by, as they are widely dispersed amidst the Earth's crust and rarely found in large deposits the way other minerals are. Thus, they take a lot of effort to mine. For these reasons -- and others -- some worry increasing global demand for electronic technologies like smart phones could put rising pressure on the rare earth metals industry. That would be bad news for everyone but China, where 90 percent of the world's rare earth metal extraction currently takes place.

However, new research by geochemists at Jacobs University in Germany has revealed a promising technique for extracting, or leaching, rare earth metals from ferromanganese deposits on the ocean floor.

"Our pilot work on selective extraction of high-tech metals from marine ferromanganese nodules and crusts," the study's authors wrote, "showed that specific metal-binding organic ligands may have promising potential in future processing technologies of these oxide deposits."

Apple, maker of the iPhone, and other tech manufacturers are surely hopeful that these German geochemists are onto to something. If not, they could be forking over larger sums of money to Chinese mining companies in the near future.

As Thomas Graedel, professor of geology and industrial ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, recently said: "I'm not worried that we'll run out of rare earth metals, but will we have enough energy at a reasonable price to extract it?"

[Applied Geochemistry]

[Discovery News]

[State of the Planet]


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