Science 4 min read

Mining the Moon and Ocean: Top 5 Rare Earth Minerals for Future Tech

Somsak Nitimongkolchai |

Somsak Nitimongkolchai |

The extraction of mineral resources from both space and the ocean appears to be a solution to secure the supply of materials that are rare and have become expensive on land.

The idea of exploiting the mineral deposits of asteroids and other celestial bodies is as old as the space conquest in science fiction literature.

In 1898, in his novel Conquest of Mars, Garrett Serviss Edison describes how a human expedition and revenge mission to Mars discovers a gold-rich mining outpost on an asteroid.

The Sought-After Rare Earths

Also known as rare earth minerals or “rare earths”, rare Earth elements, as the name suggests, are ultra-rare and precious deposits that are used in a wide range of applications, including energy, glass and ceramics, rechargeable batteries, renewables, healthcare, transportation, and even banknotes.

They are also used in the manufacture of consumer electronics, radar systems, catalytic converters, and superconductors.

However, these elements are difficult to harvest. Extracting them comes with high environmental and monetary costs, which raises the question: should we really try and extract them from every possible source?

Because of their unique properties, the future of REEs is promising, especially in the high-tech field.

But the known and exploitable deposits are rather limited on the planet: with crustal abundance ranging between 0.5 parts per million to 60 parts per million.

There are 140 million tonnes of estimated REE global reserves. With 55 million and 35 million tonnes respectively, China and India hold over two-thirds of the world’s reserves, far ahead the United States at 13 million tonnes.

This scarcity has pushed forward the admittedly crazy idea to go get these precious minerals from the Moon.

Confronted with the Chinese dominion that accounts for more than 90% of REE global production, the stakes are high for the U.S.

Lunar CATALYST (LUNAR Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown) is an ambitious initiative taken up by both NASA and the private U.S. space sector.

Financed by major mining companies that are attracted by the large reserves of rare earths in the lunar crust, this lunar program seeks to develop prospecting robots and other tech that will be used to mine the moon.

Most Critical Rare Earth Elements

Comprising 17 relatively abundant chemical elements in the earth’s crust, REEs began to be used on a large scale in the 1950s, following the discovery of effective methods of separation of the various elements.

The production of many REEs actually exceeds demand and will remain so for the foreseeable future, like cerium, the most abundant REE.

Here are the 5 Most Critically Important REEs:

1. Neodymium:

Belonging to a category of heavy rare earth elements (HREEs), neodymium is produced worldwide at 21–25 Kt/a, with 90% coming from China.

Neodymium is used in the production of super magnets, which are present in hybrid cars, renewables (particularly wind), air conditioners, microphones, hard disks and more.

2. Dysprosium:

If not all REEs are really rare, dysprosium lives up to its name. Etymologically, “dysprosium” is derived from the Greek “dysprositos” that translates to “hard to get.”

With global production of around 1.4 Kt in the last year, dysprosium market is expected to be in deficit, especially with its increasing use in permanent magnets.

3. Europium:

The most reactive REE, europium is an element known for its applications in phosphorescence within various compounds.

It is used in optics to manufacture certain laser lenses and also in geochemistry in order to trace the origin of rocks and minerals.

4. Terbium:

Taking its name from the village of Ytterby (Sweden), terbium is used for its fluorescent properties that help scientists in experiments and is commonly found in electronic screens.

In medicine, it helps to monitor the brain at the molecular level in the search for drugs that are more effective, more selective and without side effects.

Terbium is also used in fuel cells and alloys for electronic devices. Surprisingly, it’s 20 to 30 times more abundant than silver.

5. Yttrium:

One of the main applications of yttrium is the production of red phosphors used in LED-backlight displays. It also enters in the production of alloys, opto-electronic devices, optical glasses, and catalysts.

Yttrium is also found in many synthetic garnet composites. YIG (yttrium iron garnet), for instance, is used in microwaves and acoustics. YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet) is an artificial gem used in jewelry to imitate diamonds and other gemstones.

Read More: How to Become an Asteroid Mining Trillionaire

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

Comments (5)
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  1. Profile Image
    Claire Smith March 17 at 6:13 am GMT

    Going to the moon is more costly. No question about it.

    • Profile Image
      Anthony Crosier March 17 at 6:28 am GMT

      The United State will mine these earth minerals by any means to be self-sufficient.

      • Profile Image
        Claire Smith March 19 at 4:37 am GMT

        Really, for now, it’s just a speculation, but I feel like the main point is that NASA can do anything in space.

        • Profile Image
          Anthony Crosier March 19 at 9:44 am GMT

          Extraterrestrial mining is a science fiction — no more. Besides as per record, spaces exploration returns $7-$14 per dollar invested.

          • Profile Image
            Claire Smith March 19 at 10:16 am GMT

            Wow!!! That return of investment drives them to innovate a more advanced Eppstein drive. On the other hand, the effect of reducing the mass of the Moon for the purpose of increasing the mass of the earth may have some cosmic effect.

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