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The potential of deep-sea mud as a source of rare-earth elements (2018) (www.nature.com)
51 points by weregiraffe 5 months ago | hide | past | web | 48 comments | favorite





I wonder what would be the impact of any mining operations on deep sea wildlife. The article doesn't seem to discuss this.

So this is indeed a major concern.

The main governing body for this type of work is the international seabed authority: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Seabed_Authori...

A hot area they have looked at is the longing of poly metallic nodules: http://www.eu-midas.net/science/nodules

While no one has actually started mining operations yet, they are working in that direction, trying to get ahead of the environmental impacts first and foremost.

While there is a strong argument for “protecting” the environment, I don’t see that as a justification in it if itself to not do resource extraction. While not perfect, they seem to be heading toward a conservative approach to mining. In it (at least last I heard) they are deliberately setting aside large swaths of areas with the valuable resource as “wildlife reserves” similar to what we do in the United States, and Australia is going for the Great Barrier Reef.

I don’t know the future here, but there are too many people in this planet clamoring for resources not to look at all options (though personally I would prefer to enable space mining).



The fact that the authors don't (when they surely must be aware) makes you wonder if they're on the take somehow.

Or have been pressured into silence.


If you click on the authors' names, you'll get enough info to roughly determine their areas of expertise. Based on a few names I clicked, it sounds as though they're focused more on brainstorming potential solutions for energy and resource shortages than evaluating the environmental impacts of those solutions. They'll probably leave the latter part to their peers who are more qualified to make such assessments.

There's no argument that environment impact needs to be evaluated--that's just not what these particular people are qualified to assess. It's unlikely that the entirety of academia will avoid discussing the potential consequences of these ideas. Those who are qualified to do so will.


That would just distroy it but they are invisible to most people. Benthic ecosystems are fragile. They depend a lot on silt size and currents.

same here, it seems pretty obvious to me that should be a major concern.

nah, let's go hunt for rare-earth elements left over from the creation of the solar system out where we aren't in danger of stressing an already stressed ecosystem.

Let's pay the tremendous up-front costs of lifting mining operations out and reap the long (caveat: very long) term benefits of doing so.

edit: In case that came across as sarcasm, I am in dead earnest. Whatever the relative costs of so-called asteroid mining versus deep sea mining, the ecological cost tips the balance waaay in the favor of asteroid mining. It's just that we'd have to have a longer-term mindset than we currently do.


Just for the sake of discussion, I'll say that sending anything into space also creates a lot of pollution on Earth (just think about all the energy necessary to build and power our rockets). Mining asteroids would still have an ecological impact - higher, lower, I don't know. But something to keep in mind.

This is very true, but my thinking is that cost is almost all front-loaded - once we get equipment up there to accomplish the mining, the launches in support would not be terribly frequent, I think, right?

That's possible, depending on how much fuel will the operation consume when in space - and where it will come from. At the moment, I think we would need to send the fuel to move all cargo from Earth. Being able to create it directly in space would change everything, of course.

Land ecosystems had evolved with a fair amount of change. They can recover also much faster because they are "high energy" machines. In the mud you have a lot of hidden structure that is basic for the marine living things inhabiting those ecosystems. Just stirring the mud you can kill a lot of the biomass. And there is the anoxic nasty stuff also that would poison the area.

The dinosaurs tried to do that by bringing the Chicxulub asteroid into Earth orbit for easy mining. Look how that turned out.

And then became petroleum! COINCIDENCE?

seriously, whatever the (overstated, imo) danger of moving mass into Earth orbit is, it can be mitigated - and probably a lot more easily than the dangers of deep sea drilling can be.


I don't think your opinion is very informed. We're just now starting to discover and understand the consequences of launching and landing so many rockets per year. This part would not hold up to the scale at which mining is done.

Perhaps this is why China wants to build a moon base


I'm no expert, but is lifting stuff from the deep sea not exorbitantly expensive? The word 'costs' does only appear twice in the article, and there it talks only about potential reducing costs by separating the mud with a hydrocyclone (1) on the sea floor...

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrocyclone


Mining is also quite expensive. Conceptually, the process for lifting from the deep ocean is quite a bit simpler: attach the load to an airtight bag, and release a little bit of air into the bag. The load will float to the surface. There would still be a process involved in getting compressed air to the deep, but it might be simpler than boring holes in the earth.

Of course, it's still likely that the costs involved mean this idea wouldn't work in today's market conditions. That doesn't mean that conditions would never change...


Quite a bit of mining involves picking stuff up off the ground. The worldwide mining industry is surprisingly small due to it’s high efficiency.

Across all materials from coal, diamonds, salt, copper, etc it all adds up to just ~600billion per year in revenue and profit margins that jump all over the pace from year to year.

PS: Rare earth minerals are also generally discarded. It’s the effort to remove them from ore that’s the issue not finding them.


Pretty cool, but worth noting that most rare-earths aren't actually that rare and supply shortages tend to be because of the long delay in ramping up mine production. We aren't close to running out of any metals/minerals the last I heard. I'd be interested in seeing the economics of mining this mud compared to more traditional methods.

I'd be more interested to see how economy reacts if a massively used resource going to be depleted.

We've been getting warned about reaching peak oil / diminishing oil production, but so far that hasn't happened yet as far as I know (that moment has been postponed again because of the highly destructive fracking process)


This has a slight air of the manganese nodule seabed mining that was propagated as cover for the Glomar Explorer expedition...

Ha, agree. This is an amazing story if you haven't read about it: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Azorian

The kind of thing that kind of makes you second guess the "whacky" conspiracy crackpots.


This. Other than incremental improvements in deep sea drilling I can't read an article about deep sea resource extraction and take it seriously. There will forever be a voice in the back of my head telling me it's just a CIA cover story.

They actually exist thought, they just weren't worth mining.

Yes, let's anger Poseidon. That's a good idea.



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