Industry Insights | Rare Tales from the Deep Seas

Half a century ago, the supposed exploration for manganese on the ocean floor was news. Today, rare earth minerals like manganese, cobalt, and seafloor massive sulfide deposits, are again topical. In this Industry Insights article, Andrew Long discusses the seabed distribution, elemental composition, and common uses of rare-earth elements.

On June 20, 1974, US billionaire Howard Hughes commenced a clandestine operation approximately 2 600 km northwest of Hawaii that was ostensibly mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. In fact, the Hughes Glomar Explorer was attempting to salvage the sunken Soviet submarine K-129 and its nuclear and intelligence payload on behalf of the CIA. Project Azorian deployed a capture vehicle known as Clementine that attempted a delicate operation some 5 kilometers below the ocean surface. Despite being tipped off about the operation, the Soviets reportedly disregarded the warning as they believed the recovery task was logistically impossible.
 
If we fast-forward almost half a century, exotic efforts to pursue deep-sea mining are once again being proposed. Manganese nodules, cobalt crusts, seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits, and even methane gas hydrates are being targeted.
 
In the Industry Insights newsletter at I discuss the seabed distribution, elemental composition, and common uses of rare-earth elements; a set of 17 nearly indistinguishable lustrous silvery-white soft heavy metals that have an enormous impact upon our daily lives. Given the extreme imbalance of global rare-earth reserves and their production, given the global geopolitical climate, it is understandable why the major economic powers increasingly seek to engage in seabed mining for such minerals.