There might be a crack in China's domination of rare earth metals – a mud-filled crack, thanks to a discovery by Japanese scientists. Vast reserves of rare earth metals that can be mined cheaply have been found in deep-sea mud on the Pacific ocean seabed. These essential metals are needed for a wide range of technologies – from consumer electronics like smartphones and TVs to advanced weapons systems and hybrid and electric vehicles.
"We have found deposits that are just two to four (meters) from the seabed surface at higher concentrations than anybody ever thought existed, and it won't cost much at all to extract," said professor Yasuhiro Kato from Tokyo University, the leader of the team, to The Telegraph.
Some of the metals are found in other parts of the world, but the heavier metals such as dysprosium, terbium, europium, and ytterbium are the most important. After driving rivals out of the business in the 1990s, China became the source of 97 percent of these heavy rare earth metals. In 2009, China decided to restrict exports, which caused protests and legal complaints from the US and the European Union. China's actions also motivated more companies to set up shop in China to access the rare earth metals.
"It won't cost much at all to extract" - professor Yasuhiro Kato, Tokyo University.
The team of Japanese scientists first discovered the Pacific ocean reserves two years ago, with that supply possibly being 1,000 times the supply of land-based deposits. The team's latest discovery is in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone in deep-sea mud. It's 5,700 meters below sea level around the island of Minami-Torishama. The researchers says that while the rare earth metals are down deep, they can easily be distracted with minimal disturbance off the seafloor using pressurized air.
Professor Kato thinks the exploration will take another two years before it can be scaled up for production. Over 50 percent of the discovered deposit is heavy rare earth metals and they doen't need the radioactive by-product thorium that makes the metals hard to mine in China.