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Japanese Team Finds New Source of Rare Earth Elements 215

Posted by timothy
from the who-the-hell-is-julian-simon? dept.
gyaku_zuki writes "As reported in the BBC, a Japanese survey team has discovered 'vast' quantities of rare earths in international waters in the Pacific Ocean. The search for alternative sources of these expensive elements (used in common consumer electronics including mobile phones) was intensified recently after a territory dispute with China, which produces more than 90% of the world's rare earths, resulted in China blocking export to Japan."
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Japanese Team Finds New Source of Rare Earth Elements

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  • It's deep (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Monday July 04, 2011 @05:41PM (#36655758) Journal
    it says the depth of this find is between 11,000 and 15,000 feet (3,500-6,000 meters). I'm not sure a mining operation at that depth is feasible, or at least, cost effective.
  • by fantomas (94850) on Monday July 04, 2011 @05:55PM (#36655848)

    Or, as The Register reports, [theregister.co.uk] Japan has found gigatonnes of mud in the deep ocean....

    There are rare elements in your back garden. Japan has found some under the sea. But the concentration they've found still means having to dig thousands of tonnes of mud up from the deep ocean and run it through millions of gallons of acid and other toxic chemicals to separate the rare earths from the common minerals. Could be costly. China's angle is that they have them on land and in places they can dig them out with JCBs rather than specialised deep sea equipment. Good luck on Japan but it sounds like it won't be cheap...

  • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:39PM (#36656440)

    People hear "rare" and they think there must not be much of them. Well rare earths, aren't. I mean they are rare as opposed to, say, iron or silicon or aluminium, but they are not rare as in "very hard to find."

    As the parent said, China produces most of them because they do it the cheapest. The US (and other countries) produced them in the past and can do so again in the future.

    Now these under water deposits might be of interest because it sounds like they may be easier to process than what we have now. That could be useful. Even though the extraction will probably be more costly, if the refining and processing is cheaper, that could make them worth while.

    However these are not something that is rare, contrary to the name.

  • Re:So... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by alexborges (313924) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:56PM (#36656520)

    Im from a country fucked by the US in a regular basis and well, I do prefer to be subsidiary to country that at least says its democratic or, even if some of its citizens dont like it, has people that *can* say they WANT to be democratic as opposed to what they have...

    At least its press will eventually get around to showing shit at abu garib and gitmo... What if it was China instead? You would never know anything. You would either conform or spend years at reeducation camps if not with a bullet in your head.

    Fuck that.

    Its bad enough as it is...

  • Re:So... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by memyselfandeye (1849868) on Monday July 04, 2011 @08:26PM (#36656648)

    Rare earths are not rare. It was a horrible, horrible mistake to call them rare. Some of the elements in that family are more abundant than copper. They were coined 'rare' because as far as metals go, they are quite reactive, which makes them great for batteries, but also means they don't have much time to bond with eachother...which makes them great FOR BATTERIES! In essence, you do not find chunks of Cerium just laying around like you do, or did in some cases, as iron and boxite (aluminum) and copper. Thus they are usually found as minor, but significant, traces in other minerals and not all by themselves or as significant ores.

    The largest mines prior to the mid 90s were located in the United States in Oregon, Brazil, and South Africa. There were literally Indiana Jones like warehouses full of 'rare earths' that were unneeded because the chemical properties of this family mean they are not found in huge chunks, but rather spread out in a given area. If you are digging for Lanthanum, for example, you'll end up with 'worthless' Neodymium and other metals. Prior to the mid-90s, these elements would often flip flop on the market as mines started pulling out different metals (Scandium vs Yttrium and Neodymium vs. Iridium)

    China undercut global demand for the metals 20 years ago, and the World hasn't looked back since. It was an arrangement of convenience, as China started pulling out the damn stuff faster than the world could 'spend it.' No longer did lamp makers and battery manufacturers have to worry about ridiculous future contracts for rare earths. Prices stabilized quite dramatically, and the Wold loved it. China got a huge boost to a nascent technological and manufacturing industries due to the flood of foreign investment, as well as first dips on cheap metals.

    The minute the so called 'Peak Earth' hits, and rare earths spike on the market because they have all 'disappeared', mines across the Globe will open up once again since it will be cost effective to sell the damn things.

    So no, it will not be commercially viable to dig these elements out of the ocean floor for many many years. Keep in mind, the ocean floor is also full of gold nuggets, and the ocean itself as a vast amount of gold in solution. But just as it wouldn't be worth it to fly to the Moon where it made of gold, it isn't worth it to go panning for the stuff 1km below the ocean surface.

    Anyway, 2.5 cents.

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