Unless you’re playing volleyball or making outdoor pies, mud isn’t a very exciting substance. This mixture of dirt and water might rejuvenate your skin, but it’s not usually the stuff of international headlines. Unless, of course, there’s something more than dirt in it.
Jamaica recently discovered that its mud may be once of the most valuable resources it contains. The Associated Press has reported remarks from Jamaica’s science, technology, energy and mining minister, Philip Paulwell, who said that Jamaica’s red mud contains “high concentrations of rare-earth elements”–a discovery that could thrust this sleepy island nation into the center of the booming technology industry.
Rare earth elements are necessary to the manufacturing of modern electronics, especially mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. As Wired UK reports, “rare earth minerals are not actually rare in the sense that there aren’t many of them — they’re distributed relatively evenly throughout the Earth’s crust. However, there are few locations where they exist in concentrations high enough to make extraction cost-effective.” Until recently China had a monopoly on rare earth elements, but exploitation of these resource has led to a decline in their availability. Jamaica’s mud could change all of that.
Foreign companies have already moved in to stake their claim in what could be the next mineral rush. Japan’s Nippon Light Metal has agreed to invest $3 million in buildings and equipment for a pilot project. Any rare-earth elements produced during this phase will be jointly owned by Jamaica and the Japanese company.
While this news might be a boon for Jamaica’s struggling economy, it’s also worrisome from an environmental perspective. Rare earth elements are what makes e-waste so toxic and many feel that expired gadgets ought to be properly recycled so that these materials can be salvaged for reuse. Progress in responsible e-waste recycling has been slow, however, and with demand growing every day, companies want access to rare earth deposits for quick extraction.
We can only hope that because the mud is easily accessible, Nippon’s extraction process will be less harmful than traditional mining, and that environmental degradation will be kept to a minimum. After all, Jamaica’s most important industry is travel and hospitality, and no one wants to vacation next door to an open pit mine or poisoned jungle.