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Rare Earth: Afghanistan Sits on $1 Trillion in Minerals

Despite being one of the poorest nations in the world, Afghanistan may be sitting on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world, valued at nearly $1 trillion, scientists say.

Afghanistan, a country nearly the size of Texas, is loaded with minerals deposited by the violent collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. The U.S. Geological Survey began inspecting what mineral resources Afghanistan had after U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in the country in 2004.

In 2006, U.S. researchers flew airborne missions to conduct magnetic, gravity and hyperspectral surveys over Afghanistan. [Infographic: Facts About Rare Earth Minerals]

Image: Rare earth minerals
This assortment of rare earth elements includes, clockwise from top, praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium. Peggy Greb / USDA

The aerial surveys determined that Afghanistan may hold 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, and lodes of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium. For instance, the Khanneshin carbonatite deposit in Afghanistan's Helmand province is valued at $89 billion, full as it is with rare earth elements.

"Afghanistan is a country that is very, very rich in mineral resources," geologist Jack Medlin, program manager of the USGS Afghanistan project, told LiveScience. The scientists' work was detailed in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal Science.

In 2010, the USGS data attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which is entrusted with rebuilding Afghanistan. The task force valued Afghanistan's mineral resources at $908 billion, while the Afghan government's estimate is $3 trillion. [Gold Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Gold Mining?]

Over the past four years, USGS and TFBSO have embarked on dozens of excursions to confirm the aerial findings, resulting in what are essentially treasure maps for mining companies.

The Afghan government has already signed a 30-year, $3 billion contract with the China Metallurgical Group, a state-owned mining enterprise based in Beijing, to exploit the Mes Aynak copper deposit, and awarded mining rights for the country's biggest iron deposit to a group of Indian state-run and private companies. [Is China Mining a Rare Earth Monopoly? Op-Ed]

— Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Follow LiveScience on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.