Discovery could smash China’s rare-earths stranglehold

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A worker prepares to pour molten lanthanum, a rare-earth metal, into a mold at a smelter in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 2010. Photo: Reuters / David Gray

A “semi-infinite” supply of rare earths, vital elements for the global production of batteries, hard disc drives, portable electronics, microphones and many others, has been found in a deep-sea ore deposit about 1,850 kilometers southeast of Tokyo, beneath the waves of the vast northwestern Pacific Ocean, The Wall Street Journal reported this month.

Researchers from Tokyo-based Waseda University have surveyed the roughly 2,500-square-kilometer region of the sea floor there, at depths of 5,600 to 5,800 meters, off the coral atoll of Minami-Tori-shima, aka Marcus Island, and affirmed the area could hold more than 16 million tons of rare-earth oxides. They would include 780 years’ worth of the global supply of yttrium, 620 years’ worth of europium, 420 years’ worth of terbium, and 730 years’ worth of dysprosium, according to their paper that appeared in the journal Scientific Reports.

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The Minami-Tori-shima atoll is some 1,850 kilometers from Tokyo in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Photo: Google Maps

The data and estimates have also confirmed samples obtained by another team of University of Tokyo scholars and Japanese maritime researchers from the same part of the sea floor a few years ago.

Reports back then noted that the research team had found a mud layer 2-4 meters beneath the seabed with concentrations of up to 0.66% rare-earth oxides (REO). A potential deposit might compare in grade with the ion-absorption-type deposits in southern China that provide the bulk of the country’s rare-earth production, which grade in the range of 0.05% to 0.5% REO.

Ends of the earth: University of Tokyo's Yasuhiro Kato in 2011 shows a sample extracted from about 4,000 meters below the Pacific Ocean where vast deposits of rare earths minerals were found. Photo: Reuters

Ends of the earth: the University of Tokyo’s Yasuhiro Kato in 2011 shows a sample extracted from about 4,000 meters below the Pacific Ocean where vast deposits of rare-earth minerals were found. Photo: Reuters

The find could potentially overthrow China’s dominance in the rare-earth world market, but extracting such metals from seabed sludge is expensive and technically challenging. A statement by Waseda University said scientists could still take years to figure out the best method of exploration.

Because of their geochemical properties, rare-earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated as rare-earth minerals in economically exploitable ore deposits.

China, sitting on one of the world’s largest deposits of rare earths, has for decades enjoyed a monopoly in mining and exploration of the “yeast” of modern electronic industry.

With a cartel of state-owned miners and government-decreed mining caps and export quotas, Beijing has been playing its rare-earth trump card to support or suppress trading partners.

For instance, Beijing slashed its export quota to 35,000 tons per year from 2010-2015 in the name of conserving scarce resources and protecting its environment, creating an international undersupply and a bitter spat between Chinese sellers and buyers in the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea.

The quota was dropped after Beijing lost a suit filed by the US administration of Barack Obama with the World Trade Organization.

The rare-earths dispute formed part of the storyline in Season 2 of the Netflix blockbuster TV series House of Cards.

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