Posts Tagged ‘geology’

My husband and I are much like the rest of today’s world. We’re technology hogs. In our house, we have a desktop computer, three laptops, three digital tablets, two e-readers, and two smart phones. We also drive a hybrid car that’s equipped with a GPS system and a satellite radio. Even our front-loading washing machine and dryer run on small-scale electric motors that utilize the latest technologies.

Every product that I’ve listed in the above paragraph relies a set of seventeen chemical elements that share certain magnetic and catalytic properties. These metals make most of today’s technology run. In Japan they’re called “the seeds of technology”. In the U.S. they’re called “Technology Metals”. Most of the world knows them as rare earth elements (REEs).

Rare Earth Elements

Rare Earth Elements

Yet, despite how important REEs are to today’s world, China has a stranglehold on the supply, with a market share of over 90%. This has bothered the rest of the world, especially since 2010, when China imposed export quotas on the elements. The World Trade Organization recently ruled that this quota was an unfair trade practice, but most international experts wonder if their ruling will have any affect on China’s monopoly.

But there is strange fact regarding rare earth elements. They’re not so rare. Experts say the trick is to find reserves that have sufficient quantities of the elements so that mining them is profitable.

Luckily, modern technology has come to the rescue, helping geologists and miners identify new areas for exploration. There are handheld geochemical analyzers that can be used right in the field, along with digital field systems for displaying that data onto maps just as soon as it is collected.

Thermo Scientific Niton XRF analyzerspinemap geology &mining systems

That’s why the August 15 announcement by the United States Geological Survey’s Afghanistan Project is so baffling. According to, “In 2006, U.S. researchers flew airborne missions to conduct magnetic, gravity and hyperspectral surveys over Afghanistan. The magnetic surveys probed for iron-bearing minerals up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) below the surface.”

No, that isn’t a misprint. By flying over Afghanistan, they were able to identify minerals that were 6 miles underground. How did they do it? According to livescience, “The hyperspectral survey looked at the spectrum of light reflected off rocks to identify the light signatures unique to each mineral.” And they found a lot of the stuff, about 1.4 million tons.

And it only took two months to map more than 70 percent of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas. If such technology is readily available, why are today’s private geologists and miners using hand-held analyzers and digital tablets for their fieldwork?