On Monday Japanese researchers said they had discovered huge quantities of precious minerals known as rare earths, 17 uncommon metals with unique electronic characteristics, which have become essential to the consumer electronics industry – as the rare earth applications play a key role in size reductions, magnetic and EV technology and battery and computing power.
Global rare earth production is increasingly controlled by China* that has introduced a rare earth exports restricting policy, possibly endangering the competitiveness of electronics industries in Japan, the US and Europe.
Due to these restrictions the price for rare earths like dysprosium and neodymium has already increased tenfold since last year.
World’s largest deposit
It is why the Japanese findings were welcomed by media worldwide – as they had stumbled on a real underwater rare earth gold mine, spread over 78 different locations and amounting to 80-100 billion tonnes of several of the rare earth metals, including large quantities of yttrium. That is much more than any known deposit on land. As the minerals were discovered in loose sediments, deep sea mining would be quite possible, the Japanese stated.
The rare earth deposits however were found on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, at depths ranging between 3500 and 6000 meters – and extraction may not be as easy, Reuters reported yesterday, quoting different resources analysts.
Although some rare earths already cost several thousands of dollars per kilogram that may still be insufficient for commercial deep sea mining. As both experience and infrastructure are also lacking perhaps it will be decades before the marine deposits will be in full production.
Recycling rare earth
Meanwhile the industry is focusing on terrestrial deposits outside China’s reach. There is however one other solution to this resources problem. If you really think your social life requires you to update your cell phone yet again, than please recycle the old one. Your e-waste may be more valuable than you think.
[*) Also elsewhere the race for resources does not simply refrain to fossil fuels or other energy resources. Even the control over relatively cheap macro resources like potash, used as potassium fertiliser, is at stake in the geopolitical game. And it should be no surprise here too China is at play.]
© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org