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Cell Phone Sea Change

Bottom of Erappu channel Ailuk atoll Marshall Islands Pacific

The Ring of Underwater Rocks

Are Deep-Sea Rocks Harboring Future Smartphones?

Why you should care

Because you’ll be surprised at the depths some are willing to go to satisfy your technological needs.

Cerium, dysprosium, thulium, yttrium — unpronounceable names that may look like sci-fi gibberish, but they’re actually elements — and they’re in your smartphone.

Rare earth minerals, 17 in all, are the building blocks of most high-tech devices because they react with other materials in unique ways that produce everything from powerful magnets to light batteries. But due to a stagnating number of functioning mines (85 percent of which are in China), we are running out of the elements, and, according to the U.S. National Academy of Science and the European Union , we may soon face a serious shortage.

Our plan is to literally hoover them off the ocean floor.

But there’s hope, thanks to a new underwater effort to locate more of these precious minerals.

Ocean floors — at depths up to 16,400 feet — happen to be covered with vast quantities of strange, potato-size rocks that are rich in manganese, iron and rare minerals.

These “ferromanganese modules” can be found in large deposits off the west coast of Mexico, in the Peru Basin and in the center of the Indian Ocean. They were first discovered by a British scientific expedition in the 19th century, but harvesting them at a commercial scale seemed economically unviable and technically impossible.

Until now. Deep-sea machinery is evolving quickly, and a study by German geochemists has demonstrated a new way to efficiently extract rare earths from polymetallic lumps using desferrioxamine-B, a solvent agent commonly used to treat iron poisoning.

Rays of light shine down through a cave opening underwater at the Swan Islands, 90 miles off the coast of Honduras.

Source: Kip Evans/Alamy

As the technical barriers disappear, several countries are getting in on the act. In fact, the International Seabed Authority , which regulates the use of the seafloor in international waters, has, in the past four years, granted an unprecedented number of permits to look for nodules on the seabed — at a cost of $250,000 each.

As of yet, there are no companies commercially exploiting this underwater treasure trove, but the U.S., Japan and Germany are exploring the seabed and developing technology to this end. And the U.K. hopes to beat them to it. The British company Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, has received permission from the ISA to explore 58,000 square kilometers of the Pacific for the next 30 years with an aim toward harvesting nodules in the waters near the Cook Islands, where there are an estimated 10 billion tons of them.

“Our plan is to literally hoover them off the ocean floor. And we believe it’s entirely feasible to build a harvester that will allow us to do this in a way that is environmentally benign,” says Stephen Ball from Lockheed Martin. The device is already being tested.

With around 130,000 metric tons of rare earth metals being mined each year, the potential value of this underwater cache is enormous. And while it’s too early for global economic projections, Seabed Resources estimates this new industry could bring $1.7 billion a year to the U.K.’s economy.

There’s an increasing concern among developed countries of their dependency on China … so they are eager to pursue other options, and deep-sea mining is one of them.

Deep-sea harvesting is unlikely to replace land-based mining, but it could alleviate the fear of shortages and challenge China’s monopoly. The country has had the international community on edge since a territorial dispute with Japan in 2010, when it halted exports of the minerals to the island. The following year it barred exports to the U.S., causing rare earth prices to double .

“There’s an increasing concern among developed countries of their dependency on China, especially after the recent scare, so they are eager to pursue other options, and deep-sea mining is one of them,” explains Rod Eggert, professor at the Colorado School of Mines and deputy director of the Critical Materials Institute.

Industry may be eager to explore new options, but the prospect of giant vacuum cleaners roaming the seafloor alarms scientists and ecologists alike.

Given the experimental nature of this undertaking, predictions about the effects of nodule extraction are extremely uncertain. Germany’s GEOMAR Center for Ocean Research claims the ecological impact of harvesting nodules from the sea would be unacceptable with current technology, which could disrupt the marine ecosystem and kill algae and fish.

Experts claim this new method for harvesting rare earths will be commonplace within 10 years.

As a result, international organizations are asking for patience. “There should be a moratorium on licenses to explore or operate deep-sea mines until independently verified research has demonstrated that no human communities or ecosystems are at risk from such operations,” says Natalie Lowrey, from the Deep Sea Mining Campaign .

On the flip side, a study by the University of Southampton says the environmental footprint of nodule harvesting could be smaller than that of conventional mining, which requires open excavation, causes deforestation and disturbs species in more populated ecosystems.

For its part, the U.K. is about to pass a bill ensuring that the state will conduct due diligence on the environmental standards of any firm searching for minerals in the deep ocean before issuing a license. But it remains the only country with legislation on the horizon. And while the U.N.’s Law of the Sea Convention provides an international framework for the exploitation of the oceans and the ISA has established regulations for deep-sea mining, there is not yet any specific legislation to guide the industrial harvesting of nodules.

Assuming the environmental effects and the legal frameworks get hammered out, experts claim this new method for harvesting rare earths will be commonplace within 10 years — by which time there’ll be a whole new generation of smartphones to power.

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