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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

HAWAII RARE EARTHS: RED HERRING JOURNALISM?

The front page headline this morning in the Honolulu Star Advertiser said:  Mineral-rich ocean mud stirs environmental fears:
Kind of hard to read, but the interesting point was that these rare-earth muds surround our islands, 5.5 million square miles of ore beds that equal the concentration of those Chinese deposits.  There are, of course, like in everything else these days, a range of detractors.  For one,  environmentalists will have a field day. 

I've had two postings this year on this subject, the first as a compilation of potential future issues and the second a more complete treatment, reporting on several encounters I've had with this subject.  Working on laser fusion at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory more than a third of a century ago, I noted that these laser materials depended on rare earths (click on the second posting above for details).  That seeming artwork to the above is supposed to have something to do with a neodymium laser, and I include it because it is so colorful.

Not long thereafter, one of my tasks for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga was to manage his (he was the primary author) seabed mining bill.  This legislation thirty one years ago became the Hard Minerals Act.  There is an interesting story about spying, a Russian submarine which sank close to Hawaii, Howard Hughes and the Glomar Explorer (to left), but the one thread that still hangs is that those American ocean mining consortia applied a full court press for the Senate not to pass the Law of the Sea Treaty. Guess what?  We have still not signed this treaty.

After I returned to Hawaii and was directing the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University, my link with this topic resulted in forming the Marine Minerals Technology Center at the UH.  The U.S. Department of Interior funded our program for a decade or so, and remains connected through a former staffer, Charles Morgan, now with Planning Solutions.

Finally, two decades ago, I joined twenty or so experts in the field to write a book:


a product of the Dahlem Conference in Berlin.  We were literally "imprisoned" for a whole week to complete that publication.  Every meal was a discussion session, but at least they served wine.  This is where, actually, I initiated my thoughts about The Venus Syndrome, for I did not until then truly realize that those marine methane hydrate (MMH) deposits could be so vast.  I think it was our group that first publicized the notion that the energy from MMH could be twice that of all the known oil, gas and coal.

So now we have the latest incarnation, but a deposit in the form of mud, and, therefore, apparently easier to harvest.  Will the vision of China controlling the future of electronics be sufficient to win over patriotic environmentalist?  I taught technology and society for several years, where I was sort of the campus econologist in the seventies, and therefore can with some authority inform the reader that this is as close to a worst case scenario for a company to attempt to overcome in this state.

Are there solutions?  Well, yes.  The harvesting system can crawl on the sea bottom and accomplish everything at depth.  Maybe a processing dome  can be built, resulting in only the finished rare earth product making it to the surface.  

Will this placate the loudest of the opposition?  Not really, but there are certain laws that could, perhaps, protect companies.  As the United Nations has largely leased most of the attractive open oceans areas, it is possible that harvesting within the 200 nautical mile (outer boundary shown to the right, which goes on about twice this length to the left--if Texas and Hawaii counted our land and ocean territories, Hawaii would be twice the size of Texas) Hawaiian Exclusive Economic Zone could well become a means for revenue generation.  After all, this is will be for the good of humanity.

So what is the reality for Hawaii?  Maybe not a pipe dream, but a very low order probability given our inordinate protection of tourism, the cost of marine production, opposition from environmentalists and the fact that virtually the entire Pacific Ocean shows some, if not much greater, potential:

Mind you, the concept is so relatively sound that I would not be surprised if somewhere in the Pacific success is attained within the decade, probably by an international consortia led by Japan.

Frankly, though, I think that Star Advertiser article is the journalistic equivalent of a red herring.  Just another example of why nothing monumental will happen here until doomsday.

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The Dow Jones Industrials climed 56 to 12,626, while world markets were almost all down.  Gold is zooming, up another $15/toz to $1529, while oil prices are increasing again, the NYMEX up to $97/barrel and Brent Spot at $114/barrel.

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By the way, did you see that incredible one mile high 50 miles wide dust storm flowing over Phoenix yesterday?

I thought this happened only in Middle East Mummy films and the war in Iraq.

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