Tue, Apr 17, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Japan ‘rare earth’ haul sparks hope of independence

TREASURE TROVE:Enough rare earths to feed global demand forever were found off of Japan, which might allow the nation to cut into China’s 90% market share


The discovery of potentially millions of tonnes of valuable “rare earth” elements in sea sludge off Japan has raised hopes that Asia’s No. 2 economy could reduce its dependence on Chinese supply.

However, experts say that extracting the minerals — used in technology ranging from mobile phones to electric vehicles — is both costly and difficult, especially when buried kilometers deep in the ocean.

A Japanese study published last week showed an estimated 14.5 million tonnes of rare earths, enough to feed global demand on a “semi-infinite” basis, with deposits to last hundreds of years.

The news made headlines internationally and in Japan, which is the world’s second-largest consumer of these minerals, but relies heavily on imports from China, which controls 90 percent of the highly strategic market.

China in 2016 extracted about 150,000 tonnes of rare earths, experts say, but has in the past restricted the supply amid political tensions.

“Japan is looking for several ways of freeing itself from any dependence on Chinese supply,” said Gaetan Lefebvre, an expert at the French Geological Survey.

Japanese firms are working on recycling products containing rare earths to reuse the elements, developing technology without rare earths and investing in foreign mining projects in exchange for the minerals.

Japan is not alone in trying to diversify away from risky China — there are 38 projects outside China at various stages of development, metal and minerals research firm Adamas Intelligence said.

In addition to wanting to cut reliance on China, the price of rare earths is rising due to a Chinese crackdown on illegal mining and surging demand for electric vehicles.

The study’s author, Yutaro Takaya from Tokyo’s Waseda University, said his team hopes to develop ways to extract the prized elements within five years.

“We are not talking about some dream technology of the distant future. We are conducting studies to make this possible,” he said.

The find “should contribute to the ‘resource security’ of Japan,” he said. “It can also serve as a diplomatic card. Japan will be able to say: ‘If prices are made to go above this level, we can look to developing sea-bottom rare earths.’”

Adamas Intelligence consultancy director Ryan Castilloux acknowledged the find was “impressive,” but recommended keeping the champagne on ice.

“It takes up to 10 years or more to advance a rare earth project from discovery into a producing mine on land, so I do not imagine it will be faster in the sea,” Castilloux said. “The discovery in Japan is still in its very early stages and it will take several years to determine if mining will be feasible.”

There is currently no profitable way of extracting rare earths from that sort of depth — more than 5km below the surface.

“Pilot mining tests have been performed, but it remains to be seen who will be the first to produce ore at a cost that is less than the value of the commodity,” said Mark Hannington from the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. “Although 16 million tons is a large number, there is no evidence that this amount could be recovered economically or sustainably.”

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