George W. Bush forever protected Pacific Ocean seamounts by proclamation creating the Northern Hawaii Island National Marine Monument. Now the rare earth elements and high-tech metal mining-eye of Mordor is turning to seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean off of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The four pristine seamounts are named Bear, Physalia, Mytilus, and Retriever. Named for animals, each underwater mountain peak has a unique assemblage of animals and bacteria living more than a thousand feet deep below the reach of any sunlight.
The Atlantic Ocean is 150-135 million years old, born when supercontinent Pangea broke into two continents. As our continent moved west a hot spot within the earth’s mantle pushed up volcanos. With the spreading of the Atlantic a chain of underwater mountains emerged over time. These seamounts are dormant and gnarly with porous black basalt. The astonishing aspect of a seamount is its mean rock porosity of 60% and extraordinarily high surface area. This acts like a sponge absorbing rare minerals from the enormous quantities of seawater that flow over for millennia. Minerals that are in trace amounts in seawater are accreted into hydrogenous ferromanganese crusts. Crusts of metal sequestration pave the seamount’s jagged surfaces.
In the crusts of seamounts are the same high-tech and rare earth minerals that are mined in China. To the consternation of other nations, China refuses to export rare earth minerals forcing high tech-companies to move their manufacturing to China. Similar mines could be opened in California but that would cost more than manufacturing in China. China plans to commence mining in Greenland to meet rising demand. The Danish government is not too pleased with the prospect.
High-tech metals highly concentrated in the crusts of seamounts include tellurium, cobalt, bismuth, zirconium, niobium, tungsten, molybdenum, platinum, titanium, and thorium. Tellurium is combined with bismuth in an alloy that is being tested as a next-generation computer chip that is more efficient and immensely faster than existing chips. Tellurium is combined with cadmium into an alloy that is considered the best material for production of multi-terawatt solar-cell electricity using thin-film photovoltaic technology. The solar-cell industry has expressed interest in mining hydrogenous ferromanganese crusts of seamounts.
The rare earth elements on the surfaces of the seamounts off New England’s shores include cerium, europium, lanthanum, and yttrium, a.k.a. Ce, Eu, La, and Y.
Cerium is a chemical oxidizing agent and polishing powder. It gives glass and ceramics yellow colors. Ce is a catalyst for self-cleaning ovens and a fluid catalytic cracking catalyst for oil refineries. Ferrocerium flints spark lighters.
Europium is in red and blue phosphors, lasers, mercury-vapor lamps, fluorescent lamps, and a NMR relaxation agent.
Lanthanum is in high refractive index and alkali-resistant glass. La is component of flint, hydrogen storage, battery-electrodes, camera lenses, and a fluid catalytic cracking catalyst for oil refineries.
Yttrium is used in energy-efficient light bulbs. Y is necessary for yttrium aluminium garnet (YAG) laser, yttrium vanadate (YVO4) as host for europium in television red phosphor, YBCO high-temperature superconductors, yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ), yttrium iron garnet (YIG) microwave filters, spark plugs, gas mantles, as well as an additive to steel.
President George W. Bush protected seamounts when he created by proclamation Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the single largest fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag.
President Obama should lead by protecting the Atlantic Ocean seamounts in American waters as part of a marine national monument that features four seamounts, five ocean canyons and Cashes Ledge Closed Area. He should take the further responsible step of using the Antiquities Act to continue the good work of the Northeast Regional Planning body within the monument unfettered by Congress.
Reference: Seamount Mineral Deposits a Source of Rare Metals for High-Technology Industries, James R. Hein, Tracey A. Conrad, and Hubert Staudigel, 2010, 184 Oceanography Vol.23, No.1 http://www.tos.org/oceanography/archive/23-1_hein.pdf