Japan Discovered a Rare-Earth Mineral Deposit That Can Supply The World For Centuries

According to a peer-reviewed study, rare-earth mineral deposits discovered earlier this year off the coast of Japan might feed the globe for millennia.

According to peer-reviewed research published in the journal Nature, the deposit holds 16 million tonnes of important rare-earth metals.

Rare-earth minerals are used in a variety of applications, including smartphone batteries and electric cars. These minerals contain one or more of 17 metallic rare-earth elements, per definition (for those familiar with the periodic table, those are on the second row from the bottom).

In fact, these elements are abundant in the layers of the Earth's crust, although they are often spread widely. According to the USGS, it is uncommon to discover significant amounts of the elements clumped together as extractable minerals.

There are now just a few commercially feasible regions where they can be mined, and their extraction is often costly.

China has controlled a significant portion of the global supply of these minerals for decades. This has caused Japan, a major producer of electronic goods, to depend on pricing set by its neighbor.

A novel discovery that might alter the global economy

The newly found deposit is enough to "supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world," the study's authors wrote in the paper.

There is sufficient yttrium for 780 years, dysprosium for 730 years, europium for 620 years, and terbium for 420 years to fulfill world demand.

The cache is located around 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles) southeast of Tokyo, on Minamitori Island. It is inside Japan's exclusive economic zone, meaning the island country has exclusive rights to its resources.

Jack Lifton, the founding partner of the market research company Technology Metals Research, told The Wall Street Journal, "This is a game-changer for Japan."

The rush to produce these resources has already begun.

Reuters reported in 2014 that Japan began searching for its own rare-earth mineral reserves after China halted supplies of the chemicals in a dispute over islands that both nations claim as their own.

The Journal notes that in 2010, China restricted its export limitations for rare earth materials, driving up prices by as much as 10 percent. China was compelled to resume exporting a greater quantity of the minerals when the World Trade Organization took up the case.

Volcanic activity may produce rare-earth minerals, although many of the minerals on our planet were generated by supernova explosions before Earth's formation.

During the formation of Earth, the minerals were integrated into the planet's mantle, a layer of rock under the crust.

As a result of tectonic action rearranging sections of the mantle, rare earth minerals have migrated closer to the surface.

Over millions of years, the process of weathering, in which rocks break down into silt, has dispersed these uncommon minerals over the whole world.

The difficulty of obtaining them is the sole factor preventing Japan from leveraging its recently discovered resource to dominate the worldwide market for rare-earth minerals.

Yutaro Takaya, the primary author of the study, told The Journal that further research is required to discover the least costly techniques.

It seems expected that rare-earth materials will continue to provide the backbone of some of the fastest-growing areas of the global technology industry.

Japan now has the chance to control a substantial portion of the worldwide supply, compelling nations that produce electronics, such as China and the United States, to acquire the minerals on Japan's terms.

Reference(s): Peer-Reviewed Research, Interesting-Engineering

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