Rare Earth min­er­als could change the global econ­omy

Chemical Industry Digest - - News & Views -

A small is­land lo­cated 790 miles off the coast of Ja­pan is home to roughly 16 mil­lion tons of mud, which con­tain mas­sive amounts of rare earth min­er­als, that re­searchers are re­fer­ring to the stores as “semi-in­fi­nite.”

Scan­dium, cerium, ter­bium, and yt­trium are just a few of the el­e­ments con­tained in the rare earth min­er­als found in the mud, and these and oth­ers are used in a va­ri­ety of tech­no­log­i­cal in­stru­ments such as smart­phones, mis­sile sys­tems, and radar de­vices. For ex­am­ple, gadolin­ium, an­other el­e­ment present in the mud, is used in mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRIs), and lan­thanum is in car­bon arc lights, which are used in the film in­dus­try for stu­dio and pro­jec­tor lights.

Be­cause of the mul­ti­tude of ap­pli­ca­tions of these el­e­ments, and be­cause China cur­rently con­trols about 95% of global rare earth min­eral pro­duc­tion, this discovery is ex­pected to have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on our global econ­omy. Ja­pan will have to­tal eco­nomic con­trol over the new sup­ply, dis­rupt­ing China’s abil­ity to be the sole en­tity set­ting rare earth min­eral prices and avail­abil­ity. To put the quan­tity found near the is­land in per­spec­tive, a pa­per pub­lished by Ja­panese re­searchers es­ti­mate that there is enough yt­trium to sup­ply the world for 780 years and enough ter­bium to last 420.

Ac­cord­ing to the US Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, these min­er­als are “con­cen­trated in ex­ploitable ore de­posits”. While this discovery could even­tu­ally pro­vide a huge global op­por­tu­nity as com­pa­nies ex­pand their sea floor min­ing tech­nol­ogy, ex­perts point out that there is still a lot to be learned about the con­se­quences and chal­lenges of this type of min­ing. There will be a lot to con­sider mov­ing for­ward, such as the is­land’s mas­sive sea floor wa­ter gaps up to 20,000 feet wide that make reach­ing the min­eral-rich mud dif­fi­cult.

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