Rare earth elements are not all that rare, but they are hard to find. Does that sound contradictory? It’s not. The elements are cerium, dysprosium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, and yttrium. Cerium, for instance, is more plentiful than copper in the earth’s crust.
The problem is, while plentiful, they are not distributed uniformly throughout the world. Some nations have them in abundance; others hardly at all. The minerals are essential to the proper functioning of many electronic devices, including cell phones, computer screens, maglev trains, and electric motors. Namibia has a lot of them. So does China.
People opposed to electric cars (that would be the Koch Brothers, folks), like to spread disinformation about how 6 year old children are forced into mines to collect rare earth minerals so wealthy fat cats can parade around in expensive electric cars (that means Teslas). They conveniently omit, however, any reference to fossil fuels poisoning the earth and everything on it.
Just as Germany has built its economy on the diesel engine, Japan has built its economy on electronics. Much of the rare earth minerals it needs are sourced from China. Beginning in 2010, China began raising the price of the minerals. Today, they cost 10 times what they did at the beginning of the decade. That prodded the Japanese to look for new sources of supply.
Now they say they have found what they are looking for in the seabed around the Ogasawara Islands 2,000 kilometers southeast of Tokyo. Scientists from the University of Tokyo and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology announced on April 10th that there are millions of tons of mud containing high concentrations of rare earth minerals in the seabed surrounding the islands — enough to supply Japan’s needs for more than 700 years.
Their discovery has recently been published in the UK journal Scientific Reports, according to the South China Morning Post. “This REY-rich mud has great potential as a rare earth metal resource because of the enormous amount available and its advantageous mineralogical features,” the report claims. It adds, the find “has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world.”
Finding the supply of rare earth minerals and making them commercially available are two different things, however. The islands are located not far from the Mariana Trench, the deepest known part of the Pacific Ocean. Mining at 6,000 meters below the surface of the ocean presents a host of technological problems. And the minerals tend to clump together, making it hard to separate them into their commercially useful components. Nonetheless, Japan is determined to press ahead with plans to overcome those issues.
There is a geo-political component to this story. “Back in 2000, when the dispute between China and Japan over the islands in the East China Sea blew up, Beijing effectively imposed an embargo on rare-earth minerals being sold to Japan, although they denied it,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University. “These elements are critical for future generations of technology and Tokyo responded by immediately seeking out new sources, including Mongolia, in order to secure shipments and maintain Japan’s technological edge.”
Just as the United States moves heaven and earth to guarantee its access to petroleum products, the Japanese see having access to rare earth minerals as critical to their national economic interests. Tokyo wants to secure its own resources in order to not be reliant on any other nations for its rare earth element supplies, Nagy says.
Motherhood is the necessity of invention, or something like that. When China decided to restrict access to its rare earth minerals, it spurred Japan to explore new source of supply. That search has ratcheted up claims by various nations to exclusive rights over remote islands in the Pacific. People who complain that none of this has anything to do with clean technology need to expand their focus. You can’t view clean tech in a vacuum. The leg bone is connected to the hip bone. Economics and politics are as deeply intertwined as cerium and yttrium.
Hat tip to Dan Allard.