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earths canarian seamounts rare

Rare earths on Canarian seamounts

They discover that the seamounts of the Canary Islands are full of 'Rare Earths'.

The seamounts of the Canary Islands revealed in 2017 an impressive mining potential, especially in the Tropic, where one of the largest reserves of tellurium on the planet was discovered. Current calculations indicate that these areas could supply up to 130 tons per square kilometer of this strategic raw material, known as rare earths, whose supply is controlled by China.

The journal "Marine Geology" publishes this month a study led by the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME-CSIC) on the reserves of key materials for industries such as the manufacture of electric vehicles, solar panels and electronic components that can be found in the ferromanganese crusts that cover eight seamounts located southwest of El Hierro.

Focusing on the mountains known as Las Hijas, Bimbache, The Paps, Echo, Drago, Tropic, Gaire and Amuley, the work describes the geological processes that have caused these crusts to not only have up to 20 times more rare earths than usual in the earth's crust, but also 4,000 times more tellurium and 500 more cobalt.

These eight elevations of volcanic origin are found at depths of between 3,500 and 5,000 meters and are structures between 92 and 152 million years old, long before the formation of the current Canary Islands (Fuerteventura, the oldest of all, is "only" 20 million years old).

Much of its surface is covered by a mineral crust composed mainly of manganese and iron, with a thickness of up to 20 centimeters. This crust contains concentrations of metals and elements known as rare earths that are considerably higher than average. These characteristics are the product of two main processes: the hydrothermal/volcanic and the constant contributions of dust suspended from the Sahara desert for millions of years, in the form of calimas.

They are considered precious for two reasons: first, because they are the result of an extremely slow geological process ("they fatten" at a rate of 0.8 to 2.6 millimeters per million years), but also because of their high content of raw materials formally classified as "strategic" by the European Commission, because they are key in the future of the technology industry.

This study analyzes the mining potential of these seamounts from 42 samples, with these results: for each square kilometer of their mineral crusts, 130 tons of rare earths and yttrium, up to 215 tons of cobalt, 92 of nickel, 39 of copper, 50 of vanadium, 13 of molybdenum can be extracted... in addition to almost 9,400 tons of manganese and almost 9,300 of iron.

And all this with very high recovery rates in the most valued materials, 95% in cobalt and 84% in rare earths.

Rare earths is currently a market of around 9,000 million euros per year of turnover dominated by China, which accounts for a third of world reserves.

The Asian giant is the main supplier of the industry, with 140,000 tons per year, 58.3% of the world production of rare earths (2020 data), followed by the United States, with 15.8%; Burma, with 12.5%; and Australia, with 7.1% ("Journal of Earth System Science", August 2022).

"With these data it is possible to propose the extraction of elements (minerals from the seamounts of the Canary Islands) in two phases, to obtain the maximum mining exploitation of interesting metals, considering rare earths not only as a by-product, but in most cases as a primary metal, together with cobalt and nickel", point out the authors of the work led by the IGME.

But there are two problems. The first is pointed out by the authors themselves: the environmental impact of mining on the valuable underwater ecosystems that also exist in these mountains, a fact that, for example, led the British team that discovered the Tropic tellurium reserves to advocate for the protection of these funds.

The second lies in the ownership of that area of the Atlantic. Although they are in the so-called "Canarian Submarine Province", because they are children of the same volcanism that made the islands emerge, most of these mountains are in international waters.

Spain has applied to the United Nations for its ownership as part of the extension of the Canary Islands platform to 350 nautical miles (648 kilometers), but Morocco has also raised a similar claim taking as reference the coast of the occupied territories in Western Sahara. The two requests overlap right on Mount Tropic and the UN has still ruled on it.

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Europe searches for rare metals and the Canary Islands enter the mining equation of the future.

The EU will oblige states to create exploitation plans that identify all possible raw materials to be extracted

The European Commission has put a stop to the 27 member countries to develop national plans that require the incorporation of all types of critical minerals essential for the energy transition.

There is a clear mandate from Brussels: by 2030, 10% of critical raw materials must come from the European Union. A scenario that splashes the lithium of Extremadura, the cobalt of Cordoba, the tungsten of Castilla y León... and also, according to sources in the sector, those that are located in Las Abuelas, seamounts to the south of the archipelago, are underlined in red.

What are grandmothers?

The grandmothers are the oldest seamounts on earth, they are about 140 million years old and arose when the Atlantic Ocean opened up and generated the magmatic hot line.

These underwater volcanic peaks are located at a depth of 300 to 4,000 meters underwater, the largest mountains are between 90 and 35 kilometers long and the smallest between 6 and 20.

These extinct submarine volcanoes have important mineral deposits of manganese crusts, polymetallic nodules and phosphorites, which are very rich in critical metals that are strategic for clean energy.

Monte Tropic, on the other hand, is part of the grandmothers but is located further south and is the one for which Morocco litigates as its sovereignty (remember that it would be Saharawi sovereignty) keeps strategic minerals, such as cobalt, tellurium, rare earths and lithium. Raw materials marked in red by the European Commission, through the European Fundamental Raw Materials Act, with which the European Union seeks to respond to the ambitious bid of the Americans to take control of these minerals through the inflation reduction law.

If you access the standard, you will see that many of these minerals are included as essential materials for the European Union: "Bauxite, coking coal, lithium, phosphorus, antimony, feldspar, cobalt, scandium, arsenic, fluorite, magnesium, silicon metal, barite, gallium, manganese, strontium, beryllium, germanium, natural graphite, tantalum, bismuth, hafnium, niobium, titanium metal, among others."

Morocco presses on

Meanwhile, the Alawite kingdom has been reclaiming this ancient volcano located 970 meters deep and about 330 nautical miles southwest of the island of El Hierro, which Spain has never exploited, for several years. In recent years, there have been legislative moves in Morocco to allow Alawites to expand into the waters near that area. On the other hand, there are many geopolitical interests to the west of Western Sahara, the territory recognised by Spain as a Moroccan province: from the future implementation of a gas pipeline linking Nigeria with Spain to the opportunity to extract the critical minerals that loom through the waters of the Atlantic.

The world's leading energy agency – the aforementioned IEA – has placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of critical minerals for the energy transition. Thus, in its latest report it said that "lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are crucial for the performance, longevity and energy density of batteries. Rare earth elements are essential for permanent magnets, which are vital for wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. In addition, power grids need an enormous amount of copper and aluminum."

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