HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Rare earth metals are used to make magnets for hybrid vehicles and smart phones. They're found in photovoltaic cells and all kinds of high-tech gadgets.
Recently they were discovered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Japan found a huge stash in sediment samples about a thousand miles southwest of Hawaii.
The find has countries drooling over the possibilities.
"It's just sediment. It's easy to get this stuff to where it makes a slurry and you can just pump it up," University of Hawaii oceanography professor Gary McMurtry said.
McMurtry has studied rare earth elements for decades. He said the metals in the Pacific mud are pretty rich.
"This would set up a very large operation. You could mine quite a bit of it," he said.
China produces about 90 percent of the world's supply of rare earth metals from its mineral mines. The sea bed could open up competition. It sits in international waters so anyone could stake a claim.
"What you have is a jurisdictional issue, one country having the jurisdiction to go in and mine one kind of a product and another one having jurisdiction to go in and mine another one," East-West Center Sr. Fellow Allen Clark said.
Environmentalists worry what mining the minerals from the ocean floor might do.
"They're going to have to process lots and lots of soil in order to get enough concentrations of rare earth material to make this worthwhile. So just the sheer processing of lots and lots of dirt under the ocean can have significant impacts," said Robert Harris, director of Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter.
From an economic angle, Clark said Hawaii could make millions as a support center for deep sea mining operations.
"It would be a logical base for the ships and provisioning and a variety of things like that," he said.
"The extent of it is huge," McMurtry said. "The area is the size of the continental United States out there."
McMurtry wrote a paper on rare earth elements in 1978. Thirty-three years later he sees the possibilities of mining for the metals on a new frontier.