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China Takes Race for Resources to Oceans, Moon

China’s decision to launch a deep-sea submersible that beats current U.S. capabilities and its plan for a lunar landing illustrate how dedicated the world’s most populous nation remains to finding critical resources, especially rare earths.

No doubt, analysts noted, China and the rest of the world remain decades from finding economical ways to mine either the ocean floor or the moon. But industry observers said China often plans years in advance and is rapidly pulling ahead of the U.S. in both races.

Ironically, the U.S. dominated both regions for decades. To date, only American astronauts have landed on the moon. And at the height of the Space Race in 1964, America launched Alvin, which formerly held the record for deep-sea exploration.

Fifteen years later, Alvin delivered a watershed moment. Using that vessel, U.S. scientists found vents of superheated fluids. That led to the discovery of a massive belt of base metals as well as gold and silver on the ocean floor off the west coast of Mexico.

 

China Goes Deep

But China recently turned the tables on the U.S. A three-man submersible known as the Jialong hit a depth of 16,591 feet in a stretch of the northeastern Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.

The feat occurred against a backdrop of rising military tensions between China and the U.S. Chinese military authorities have warned top U.S. naval officers to curb their Pacific patrols.

At the same time, China recently announced steps to retain tight rare-earth quotas. The controls controls 97 percent of the world’s supply of these elements critical for mobile technology, computing and U.S. missile guidance and other defense systems.

As it turns out, China explored an area of the ocean in the general vicinity of a region thought to contain massive amounts of rare-earth resources. Indeed, the Japanese recently made a critical rare-earth discovery on the ocean floor.

The British journal Nature Geoscience recently reported that Japanese scientists discovered the deposit at ocean depths of about 11,500-20,000 feet. A team of scientists led by Yasuhiro Kato, associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, found the minerals at 78 locations.

All of the deposits lie in international waters. Professor Kato’s team found them in ocean mud east and west of Hawaii and east of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

“The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths,” Kato said. “Just one square kilometer of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption.”

In completing the recent successful dive, Chinese authorities say they intend to have the Jialong hit depths of more than 21,000 feet by the end of 2012. That would put all ocean deposits of rare-earths, metals, minerals and other resources within China’s reach, because the Jialong could cover nearly 100 percent of the world’s seabed.

Chinese Lunar Aspirations

Meanwhile, China is stepping up its drive to explore the moon. China’s space agency has said it intends to have a lunar probe operating within two years and to land a man on the moon by 2020.

Apollo astronauts returned lunar samples beginning in 1969 that proved the  planet is rich in rare earths. However, the Obama administration has scuttled plans for the U.S. to return to the moon in favor of eventually exploring Mars and nearby asteroids.

Though they said affordable oceanic and lunar mining remains decades away, industry experts said the two are related in key respects. Both the deep sea and the moon are hostile environments that would require substantial expertise in robotic digging and recovery.

But, mining experts added, planet Earth is running low on many affordable resources. So tapping the ocean or the moon for vital materials could become economical in the later half of this century if resource depletion occurs at current rates and particularly if demand escalates due to continued population growth.

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Michael A. Robinson has written articles for some of the nation's more prestigious publications. As...