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Japan’s sea mud won’t be a match for China’s rare earths just yet

By Gwynn Guilford
minami-torishimaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Almost all of the mined deposits of what are known as “rare earths”—the name for 17 elements used in high-tech gadgets like tablets, smart phones and electric cars—belong to China. That’s left Japan, which consumes around 60% of the global supply each year, in between a rock and a hard place.

Or rocks, to be more precise—the craggy outcroppings that both Japan and China claim, called the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Back in 2010, a fight over the territory prompted China to temporarily cut off exports of rare earths to Japan. Though the territorial dispute flared up again in the middle of 2012, China hasn’t pulled its exports to Japan yet, though that’s could be because a price collapse means it needs to sell all it can.

That “hard place,” meanwhile, is finding new ways to get rare earths. Japan has experimented with recycling them, rummaged around in Jamaican mud, and inked supply agreements with India and with Vietnam.

But now it may finally have hit on something much bigger. In what The Telegraph trumpets as a “sea-mud bonanza,” Japan found high concentrations of one of the most valuable rare earths—dysprosium—and several other types in the floor of the Pacific within Japanese territorial waters. The elements, which were found in mud some 5,600-5,800 meters (18,300-19,000 feet) down, could be abundant enough to supply Japan for more than 200 years, say scientists. The lead professor of the research team told The Telegraph it “won’t cost much at all to extract.”

Time to hail the end of Chinese bullying over rare earths?

Probably not yet. Japanese media report that scientists haven’t actually developed the technology capable of extraction that deep. Bear in mind that this is many times further down than the methane hydrates that Japan has also recently been trying to extract from the seabed—and which may not actually be going so well, as one blogger notes based on Japanese press reports. And it’s not just Japanese who are struggling. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that no one has managed to commercially mine further down than 5,000 meters, says Japan Today. Plus, even if getting the actual mud up from where it is buried, between three and eight meters under the sea floor, weren’t difficult, doing so with minimal impact to the ocean floor ecosystem also adds expense.

All this points to the project costing quite a lot. Still, for countries with leading tech companies, the supply of rare earths is increasingly a security issue, rather than simply a trade matter. That has led the US government to support research into the production and management of rare earths. The Chinese government recently reorganized the industry to drive up prices and is trying to get a hold on deposits in Greenland. And there is talk of including rare-earth development in the Japanese government’s Basic Plan on Ocean Policy, a sign that Japan too is taking the matter more seriously.

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