‘Semi-infinite’ reserves of rare Earth minerals found off Japanese coast

11 Apr 2018

Cargo ship loaded with rare Earth soil ready for processing. Image: tab62/Shutterstock

Japan has stumbled upon a goldmine of rare earth minerals, promising to cater to our insatiable demand for devices in the decades ahead.

With the internet of things (IoT) only set to ramp up in the coming years and decades, the demand for hardware is expected to push our demand for rare Earth minerals (which are necessary for its production) to breaking point.

Even more worrisome for global demand is that right now, many of the minerals we need are coming from China, meaning any geopolitical issues – such as the ongoing trade spat between the Asian superpower and the US – could drastically affect supply.

Future Human

However, according to AFP (via Phys.org), Japanese researchers have revealed an extensive mapping project of rare Earth minerals in deep-sea mud. If their calculations are correct, it could be enough to supply global demand for centuries.

The 2,500 sq km region off the southern Japanese island, the team said, “has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world”.

The deposit – located entirely within Japan’s maritime boundaries – is believed to contain 16m tonnes of minerals necessary to build IoT devices, mobile phones and even electric vehicles.

Crucially, the study published to Scientific Reports revealed that the team had developed an efficient method of separating the valuable minerals from the surrounding mud.

The discovery will be welcome news not only for the world, as a potential other source of minerals, but for Japan itself.

In 2010, for example, the country faced a dramatic shortage of supply for these minerals after a diplomatic incident between it and China near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

“The enormous resource amount and the effectiveness of the mineral processing are strong indicators that this new (rare Earth-rich mud) resource could be exploited in the near future,” the study said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic