Friday, March 22, 2013

Aquatic Marvels

Another day, another reason to look sadly at the ocean, the sky and one's wallet...
Deep-sea mud proves rich in rare earths / But remote deposits hard to extract
The Yomiuri Shimbun

Highly concentrated deposits of rare earth elements have been confirmed in mud from the seafloor near the nation's easternmost island, registering as much as 6,500 parts per million, scientists said Thursday.

The figure is about 10 times higher than that of the inland deposits in China, the concentration of which ranges from 500 ppm to 1,000 ppm, according to a team of researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), the University of Tokyo and other organizations.

The team conducted a survey in late January to ascertain the location of mud containing rare earth elements near Minami-Torishima island, one of the Ogasawara Islands about 1,900 kilometers southeast of Tokyo. The coral atoll has a regular triangle shape with each side measuring about two kilometers, on which Japanese Meteorological Agency officials and Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel work.

Mud containing dysprosium, terbium and other kinds of rare earth elements--which are used for hybrid cars and liquid crystal displays--is widely available below the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean.

The team conducted the survey using JAMSTEC's deep-sea research vessel Kairei, under which pipelike devices were injected into the seafloor south of the island at six points 5,600 meters to 5,800 meters deep to sample the mud. Most of the points are located within Japan's exclusive economic zone.

Analysis of the samples revealed that 5,000 ppm or more of rare earth elements were contained in the mud taken at two of the six points, the researchers said, adding that 10,000 ppm is equivalent to 1 percent.

The rare earth materials were discovered about three to eight meters beneath the seafloor, according to the researchers...


"Hard to extract"? Three to eight meters below the sea floor at a depth of 5,600 to 5,800 meters. "Hard to extract," is it?

We were treated to a similarly uncritical seabed resources announcement only a week ago in the methane hydrates gasfication story. Non-Japanese news sources like The New York Times approached the announcement with tempered enthusiasm (Link). Japanese news reporting, however, was uncritical the the point of malfeasance, crowing only about Japan being the first country to pump burnable fuels out of ocean floor methane deposits...and how the methane hydrates in Japan's near shore area can keep Japan in fossil fuel for a century. (Link - J)

Not getting quite so much airtime and column centimeters was the failure of the methane hydrate extraction well's pump only only one week into the two week long trial and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry cancellation of the rest of the test on account of bad weather (Link - J). Or the inconvenient truth that disturbing the methane hydrate beds is an incredibly dangerous thing to be doing. (Link)

A number of narrative arcs are jumbled together here.

First is the "heroic engineering" angle of Japanese technicians and engineers solving vexing, big machine problems -- the kind of technical struggle that NHK's Project X series glorified. (Link - J)

Second is the resources security angle, where the key issue of market access has been steamrollered by the easily understood concept of self-sufficiency. Concern is fevered regarding energy security post-Fukushima and rare earths after the cutoff in Chinese exports following the Chinese trawler captain incident in 2010.

Finally there is the new, manufactured hysteria about maritime security. As the translated Yomiuri article notes, the government is drafting a new Basic Plan on Ocean Policy, one that everyone wants to get in on (Link). Not that the old Basic Plan on ocean policy is that old, mind you; indeed, the folks futzing with a new plan are the pretty much same folks who drafted the old one (Link). The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo have been big boosters, however, of a heightened state of awareness of (infatuation with?) Japan's maritime territories and EEZs.

A major goal of the revision of the Basic Plan will be providing the justification for a rapid increase in the capabilities of Japan's maritime security forces. Nothing will be allowed threaten Japan's ability to protect and exploit (note the juxtaposition) the seabed resources within Japan's EEZs, presumably not even "economic viability of projects to be undertaken."

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