India takes cue from China; to mine rare-earths

Will add two research vessels for the mining 

By Dinsa Sachan
Published: Wednesday 04 July 2012

In an effort to secure its future industrial requirements, India has decided to make a major foray into the seas for mining rare earths. The announcement to this effect was made by Union minister of state for earth sciences Ashwani Kumar after a high-level meeting at Planning Commission on July 4.

Rare earth metals comprise of 17 elements, including yttrium, scandium and members of lanthanide series in the Periodic Table. These metals do not occur in a free state. They are found in mineral oxide ores. However, their name is something of a misnomer. While they are hard to extract, they are quite abundant in the earth’s crust. In fact, cerium is the 25th most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. They are crucial for the manufacture of everything from guided missiles and hybrid cars to flat-screen televisions and BlackBerry phones.

 “Our foray into deep sea mining is not keeping in mind commercial viability of this venture, but keeping in mind our future needs,” the minister said. Another reason for the decision is to establish a strategic presence in the seas, following a similar approach by neighbour China.

China possesses one-third of the world’s known deposits of rare earth metals and contributes 97 per cent of the global production. It has gradually cut down on exports to other parts of the world, in order to save for future. This has led other countries to look for alternatives.

Last year, it had briefly halted shipments of rare earths to Japan after a row with the neighbour. In light of the ban, scientists at the University of Tokyo drilled holes at 78 sites across the Pacific Ocean, and collected 2,000 samples of sediment from the deep seafloor. They found that sea mud in the eastern South Pacific, west of Peru and Ecuador, and in the central North Pacific, near Hawaii, had rare earth deposits twice that of China.

Towards scientific advancement

Revealing conclusions of the meeting headed by the minister and attended by R Chidambaram, principal scientific advisor to government of India, K Kasturirangan, member (science and technology and environment and forests) of Planning Commission and secretaries from other departments, Kumar said that the government has decided to strengthen scientific advancement in three major areas—supercomputing, deep sea mining and translational research capabilities.

The meeting comes as Planning Commission gears to reveal the 12th five-year plan.

Kumar told reporters that with a view of achieving their objective, India is adding two research vessels to its fleet—a Rs 570-crore ship from Korea and a Rs 200-crore ship to be developed by Council of Scientific and Industrial Resarch (CSIR) at Surat. In addition to this, the country will also upgrade its current research vessel Sagar Kanya.

“Currently India possesses capability of deep sea mining up till 6,000 m. However, we plan to extend this with the help of the new vehicles,” Kumar added.

Kumar also said the move for deep sea mining is to establish strategic presence in the 2500-km area of sea water that India owns. “China has been mining deep sea in the name of maintaining its strategic position,” he added.


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