The USGS studies seafloor resources in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and globally. We seek to understand both how and where mineral-rich deposits form in the ocean, and investigate the potential environmental impacts of seafloor mining. Our findings can help the Federal government understand its ocean wealth; help industry determine which regions and deposits might be worth exploring; and help stakeholders understand the effects of mining on the marine environment. USGS studies of deep ocean mineral deposits began in the 1970s.
High-tech and green-tech uses of rare metals. A, Typical cell phones contain metals such as tantalum, platinum, palladium, gold, silver, and copper. B, Giant wind turbines often contain 2,000-kilogram magnets with up to 320 kilograms of neodymium. C, A hybrid car and the many rare earth elements required for its production. Overall figure simplified from Ore Geology Reviews; (B) photo from Wikimedia Commons; (C) adapted from EE Times, photo from Wikimedia Commons. [Larger version]
Countries around the world need metals and minerals to satisfy burgeoning demands for technology and electronics. Even green technologies, such as wind turbines and electric cars, require large quantities of rare and expensive metals.
Ferromanganese crusts, manganese nodules, phosphorites, and hydrothermal vent deposits, which occur in many deep ocean settings from the Arctic to the Antarctic, could be important sources of these metals and minerals. Yet many economic, technological, and environmental challenges to deep ocean mining remain. Despite these challenges, Japan completed pilot mining offshore of Okinawa for zinc, copper, and gold in the fall of 2017. And mining for copper, gold, and silver offshore Papua New Guinea, on 0.1 square kilometer of seafloor, could start in late 2019.
Reliable information about deep ocean minerals helps stakeholders make informed decisions on resource use, energy production, and environmental impacts. USGS provides expertise in describing and analyzing these mineral deposits including environmental issues related to seafloor mining.
USGS research oceanographer Amy Gartman waits for an X-ray diffractometer to analyze samples of hydrothermal sulfide minerals. Photo by Amy West, USGS contractor [Larger version]
Recent USGS research on the formation of seabed minerals in the Arctic Ocean revealed unusually high concentrations of rare critical minerals and metals needed for technology, such as scandium. Scandium is lighter than titanium and highly desired by the aerospace industry for fuel-efficient aircraft. USGS research with collaborators discovered that ferromanganese crusts in the Arctic region are unique in the global ocean—a finding of interest to both industry and environmentalists. These crusts have archived as much as 14 million years of the ocean’s past, revealing a record of climate changes in the Arctic.
The USGS research into the composition and manner of formation of marine minerals spans the globe, for example, the Lau back-arc basin and Cook Islands in the Pacific, Walvis Ridge in the Atlantic, and 90 East Ridge in the Indian Ocean, among many locations throughout the global ocean and U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.
In addition to the formation and distribution of marine minerals, USGS research investigates the chemical consequences of disturbing and crushing mineral deposits during the mining process. Understanding the chemistry of the mining process can help us predict how seafloor mining could impact life both on the deposits and further away, which will also depend on physical oceanographic processes such as currents.
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