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Yuriko Nakao/Reuters/Landov

Rare surprise

Science | Japanese report sparks hopes for a new source of important metals

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

Japanese scientists say they have found a new source for the costly "rare earth" metals essential for technologies like smartphones and hybrid cars: the seafloor. Yasuhiro Kato and his colleagues at the University of Tokyo reported in Nature Geoscience this month that two-fifths of a square mile of Pacific Ocean mud could contain enough rare earth elements to meet one-fifth of annual global demand.

Visionaries may have salivated at the news, but many mining experts scoffed, comparing the prospect of extracting rare earths from as deep as 20,000 feet underwater to mining the Moon. "There's never been a mine in production at anywhere near those depths, and there won't be in our lifetime," Al Shefsky, the president of a rare earth exploration company, told the Financial Post.

But with mining technologies already being developed for shallower waters, others think extracting the rare earths could become feasible in the near future as demand and prices for the metals continue a steep, upward trend. China, which currently controls the global supply of rare earth elements (97 percent), sent tremors through markets last year when it temporarily blocked exports of the metals to Japan during a territorial dispute. This month, a Chinese official hinted the country would relax export restrictions after a public rebuke by the World Trade Organization.

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Uncertainty over the supply of rare earths has spiked prices. Dysprosium, which possesses unique magnetic properties for which many rare earths are valued, was priced at $300 a kilogram last year. Today it's $3,600.

A rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., reopened last year and is expected to bring U.S. production back into a market it once dominated. Laptops, power tool motors, the U.S. military's Predator drones, and hundreds of other technologies depend on the metals.

Protective panel?

A July editorial in Nature criticized the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for how it handles scientific misconduct investigations. In 2006 DOE, which funds 40 percent of U.S. physical sciences research through its $4.9 billion Office of Science, oversaw an independent panel's investigation into charges of data fabrication against a research group that had received DOE grant money. The panel found no misconduct, yet a federal judge has blocked the public release of its investigative report.

Court documents reveal that DOE officials who were overseeing the investigation didn't read the final report themselves or even save a copy of it. Further, these agency officials are the same ones responsible for issuing the grant money in the first place, suggesting they had an interest in smoothing over disputes. The Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, thinks DOE should establish an office of research integrity dedicated to handling misconduct allegations.

Fresh wind

A team of surgeons performed the world's first transplant of a synthetic organ in Sweden this summer, removing a cancerous windpipe from a 36-year-old patient and replacing it with one crafted from his own cells. Stem cells from the patient's bone marrow were seeded onto a porous, polymer replica of his windpipe, eliminating the need for a donor or for drugs to prevent rejection of the implant. The surgeons think the breakthrough approach could be used for some other organs as well.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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