Rare earths are increasingly important for some high-tech products such as smartphones and hybrid cars. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of rare earths, accounting for 90 per cent of the world’s supply of all rare earths. In 2011, China has been criticised for curbing rare earth exports, and in 2011 it exported 16,900 tonnes of rare earth, down 58 per cent from year ago. It consumed about 83,000 tonnes, against global demand of 110,000 tonnes in 2011, according to an industry estimate.
Japan finds rich rare earth deposits on seabed
Japanese researchers said on Thursday they have found a rich deposit of rare earths on the Pacific seabed, with reports suggesting it could be up to 30 times more concentrated than Chinese reserves.
Mud samples taken from 5,800 metres below the waves contained highly concentrated amounts of the precious minerals, which are vital for high-tech manufacturing and used in products including wind turbines and iPods.
The proving of resources is significant for Japan, which currently relies largely on China, the source of around 90 per cent of the world’s supply of rare earths.
Manufacturers have complained in the past that Beijing restricts exports of the materials at times of tension.
“Rare earths are necessary for cutting-edge technologies. Japan faces an urgent task to secure stable supplies,” said a statement by researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and the University of Tokyo.
The samples, taken from the seabed near Minamitori island some 2,000 kilometres southeast of Tokyo, were 10 times more concentrated than that of mud collected from the seabed near Hawaii, the researchers said.
The concentration was 20 to 30 times higher than that from Chinese mines, Japanese media said.
Scientists believe the seabed contains about 6.8 million tonnes of the materials, the equivalent of 220 to 230 years worth of rare earths used in Japan.
But despite the desire to move away from dependence on China, the cost of extracting supplies from such a depth and in such hostile conditions may prove problematic, commentators said.
In its afternoon edition, the mass-selling Yomiuri Shimbun said there had been no successful commercial mining below 5,000 metres.
The researchers said they plan to continue their survey, which began in January, to further study rare earth resources and find out how extensive the deposits are.