Rare earth mineral reserve found off Japan

In a find that could help lessen China’s stranglehold on the world’s rare earth mineral supply, Japan announced Friday it had discovered a deposit large enough to supply the needs of its own high-tech industries for more than 200 years.

Nearly 7 million tons of rare earth minerals – used in such items as iPods, wind turbines and electric cars, have been located under the seabed near a far eastern Japanese island, Tokyo University professor Yasuhiro Kato told Agence France-Presse.

The samples, taken from an area near Minamitorishima island, approximately 1,250 miles southeast of Tokyo, contained a substantial amount of the element dysprosium, a rare earth element used in the manufacture of hybrid cars, according to the wire service.

“Specifically on dysprosium, I estimate at least 400 years’ worth of Japan’s current consumption is in the deposits,” said the professor, who examined mud samples taken from the seabed at a depth of around 18,000 feet.

Despite their name, nearly all the 17 elements classified as rare earths elements are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust.

However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms.

China is the world’s largest producer of rare earths, generating more than 97 percent of the world’s supply, according to CNN.

Earlier this year, China called for greater use of rare earths for its own domestic manufacturing – a de facto admission that Beijing wanted to limit exports and bad news for technology-dependent nations such as those in North America and the European Union.

Not surprisingly, the move to dictate production and exports raised a global outcry.

Japan’s find would be the first time large-scale rare-earth deposits had been discovered inside the island country’s exclusive economic zone, local media reported.

“We can start drilling in the mud, using oil extraction technology, within three years at the earliest and start producing rare earth minerals within five years,” Kato said.

(Above: Dysprosium sample. Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

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