Should we mine the deep ocean? – by Kendra Pierre-Louis (Popular Science – February 21, 2017)

Behind the deep sea “gold rush” for increasingly rare minerals

You’ve probably heard of peak oil—the point at which oil production reaches its maximum and begins to decline—but what about peak copper? Copper helps send the electrical signals that make modern electronics like cellphones and tablets work. But there’s growing concern that the prevalence of key minerals like copper is on the decline.

In 2016 the Chilean Copper Commission (Cochilisco) released a report that looked at 15 years of copper exploration data. They found that most new copper deposits had been found before 2010. The world hasn’t stopped looking for copper, but we’ve stopped finding it.

And copper isn’t even the mineral that makes companies most nervous—it’s still pretty abundant. Minerals like tantalum, tungsten, and molybdenum are another matter entirely. They’re vital to manufacturing high-tech devices and don’t have ready substitutes. These minerals are often not mined directly but are byproducts of other types of mining.

And recycling, in this case, isn’t a panacea. Often, the amount used in any given device is actually quite small, which makes reclaiming it difficult and expensive. So worries of a looming shortage have mining companies eyeing a hitherto untapped resource—the deep ocean.

“There are 27 licenses issued for sea mining exploration,” said Mark Hannington, a geologist at GEOMAR-Helmhotz Center for Ocean Research. Hannington spoke on Friday at the 2017 annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

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