Tue, Jul 05, 2011 - Page 1 News List

Huge rare earth deposits found in Pacific: experts

MINERAL RUSH:The deposits were found in international waters and could amount to up to 100 billion tonnes, compared with the 110 million tonnes currently located

Reuters, TOKYO

Vast deposits of rare earth minerals, crucial in making high-tech electronics products, have been found on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and can be readily extracted, Japanese scientists said yesterday.

“The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just 1km2 of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption,” said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo.

The discovery was made by a team led by Kato and included several researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth -Science and Technology.

They found the minerals in sea mud extracted from depths of 3,500m to 6,000m below the ocean surface at 78 locations. One-third of the sites yielded rich contents of rare earths and the metal yttrium, Kato said in a telephone interview.

The deposits are in international waters in an area stretching east and west of Hawaii, as well as east of Tahiti in French Polynesia, he said.

He estimated rare earths contained in the deposits amounted to 80 billion tonnes to 100 billion tonnes, compared with global reserves currently confirmed by the US Geological Survey of just 110 million tonnes that have been found mainly in the US, China, Russia and other former Soviet countries.

Details of the discovery were published yesterday in the online version of British journal Nature Geoscience.

The level of uranium and thorium — radioactive ingredients that are usually contained in such deposits that can pose environmental hazards — was found to be one-fifth of those in deposits on land, Kato said.

A shortage of rare earths, vital for making a range of high-tech electronics, magnets and batteries, has encouraged mining projects for them in recent years.

China, which accounts for 97 percent of global rare earth supplies, has been tightening trade in the strategic metals, sparking an explosion in prices.

Japan, which accounts for a third of global demand, has been stung badly, and has been looking to diversify its supply sources, particularly of heavy rare earths such as dysprosium, which is used in magnets.

Kato said the sea mud was especially rich in heavier rare earths such as gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium.

“These are used to manufacture flat-screen TVs, LED valves and hybrid cars,” he said.

Extracting the deposits requires pumping up material from the ocean floor.

“Sea mud can be brought up to ships and we can extract rare earths right there using simple acid leaching,” he said. “Using diluted acid, the process is fast, and within a few hours we can extract 80 to 90 percent of rare earths from the mud.”

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