Japan finds huge rare earth deposits underwater
"We have found deposits that are just two to four meters from the seabed surface at higher concentrations than anybody ever thought existed, and it won't cost much at all to extract," said professor Yasuhiro Kato from Tokyo University, the leader of the team.Japan consumes about 50 percent of the heavier metals in manufacturing cars and other products. It appears the Chinese overreached and created a competitor for the heavy rare earth metals. China's heavy handed price gouging is going to cost them.
While America, Australia, and other countries have begun to crank up production of the seventeen rare earth elements, they have yet to find viable amounts of the heavier metals such as dysprosium, terbium, europium, and ytterbium that are most important.
China has a near total monopoly in the heavier end of the spectrum, though it is also the dominant supplier of the whole rare earth complex after driving rivals out of business in the 1990s. It still accounts for 97pc of global supply.
Beijing shocked the world when it suddenly began to restrict exports in 2009, prompting furious protests and legal complaints by both the US and the EU at the World Trade Organisation. China claimed that it was clamping down on smuggling and environmental abuse.
"Their real intention is to force foreign companies to locate plant in China. They're saying `if you want our rare earth metals, you must build your factory here, and we can then steal your technology," said professor Kato.
The team of scientists from Japan's Agency for Marine-Earth Science and the University of Tokyo first discovered huge reserves in the mid-Pacific two years ago. These are now thought to be 1000 times all land-based deposits, some of it in French waters around Tahiti.
The latest discovery is in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone in deep-sea mud around the island of Minami-Torishima at 5,700 meters below sea level. Although it is very deep, the deposits are in highly-concentrated nodules that can be extracted using pressurised air with minimal disturbance off the seafloor and no need for the leaching.
Professor Kato said exploration will continue for another two years before scaling up towards production. Over 50pc of the metal in the deposit is the heavier end of the spectrum, twice the level of China's key mines and without the radioactive by-product thorium that makes the metals so hard to mine.