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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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 04, 2011 @05:35PM (#36655722)

    China only has "90%" of the world's production because they were able to undersell and close suppliers outside China. As China restricts exports, the price climbs and the suppliers outside China resume business.

    Media and some politicians have been spinning this one as if China holds 90% or somesuch assnumber of the world's resource. Is that still going on? I know it took BBC two weeks to wake up to that one.

    • by rwade (131726) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:03PM (#36656256)

      China does not by any means have a lock on rare earth production [wikipedia.org], with wikipedia reporting the following:

      China now produces over 97% of the world's rare earth supply, mostly in Inner Mongolia, even though it has only 37% of proven reserves.

      There are two things going on here:

      1. China's paucity of environmental considerations in resource extraction
      2. Cheapness of transport (electronics factories using rare earths are closer to Inner Mongolia than mines in South America)
      3. High mining know-how of Chinese
      4. High availability of cheap chinese labor

      On #1 -- Indeed mining for rare earths in the US is expensive because of workplace and environmental health regulations, but it can be had for some price. If China restricts supply, price will rise and US mines can reopen while meeting rigorous US standards for environmental sustainability of rare-earth mining operations.

      On #2 -- if China wants to restrict supply, that's fine -- but they're own factories are probably close to the world's largest users of rare earths for electronics. So it's not as if we won't be able to get our iPods.

      • by peragrin (659227)

        Actually #2 is a concern. China's caps include some finish goods. Several industries that requires rare earth components are suffering shortages. While things like iPods aren't on the list things like high efficiency fluorescent lighting ballasts are.

        I forget but the USA does have something like 25% of the proven reserves as well. China tariffs rare earth elements two things will/are happen. The USA will start to reopen our mines, and with the price of gas, and cross ocean shipping some mostly automate

      • by sFurbo (1361249)
        Yes, the rest of the world will ramp up production in response to rising prices from a ban on exports. However, this does not happen overnight. IIRC, it will take about a decade for a production to fully ramp up, which is quite a long time to have limited access to rare earths.
    • 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.

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        More specifically greed driven corrupt mining corporations think because it is in international waters, they can mine without paying license fees and avoid any of those pesky pollution controls.

        Delusional of course, no laws restricting their activities means also no laws protecting their activities. Of course leaving a trail of mining wastes drifting through the water column and taken by currents hundreds, even thousands of kilometres into other nations waters, means some real conflicts will likely evolv

      • by roman_mir (125474)

        Oh, the problem is in the name, but it's not the 'rare' part, it's the EARTH part, as the Japanese have clearly shown here - it's not earth, it's ocean.

    • China only has "90%" of the world's production because they were able to undersell and close suppliers outside China. As China restricts exports, the price climbs and the suppliers outside China resume business.

      The problem is shutting down and resuming supply takes time and costs money. So unless there are huge stockpiles kept somewhere then export restrictions by the main producer of a commodity will lead to shortages.

      And if the main producer wants to be really evil they can restrict exports for a while then as soon as other sources start up they can resume exports and crash the market. Repeat the cycle a few times and they can make it very difficult for anyone outside their country to have a reliable and economi

    • by Agripa (139780)

      It did not help when we sold Magnequench who was producing for the military to them and they physically moved the entire company to China.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Monday July 04, 2011 @05:47PM (#36655794)

    This is silly rare earths are not rare, just toxic to refine from ore.

    China has the market cornered because they don't give a shit that they dump toxic sludge doing it.

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Monday July 04, 2011 @05:49PM (#36655806)
    Can't be that much different than deep-sea cobalt nugget mining. Howard Hughes was all over that.

    Never mind. That was actually a really cool ruse to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear sub. I can't believe it's not a movie, yet.
  • 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 c6gunner (950153)

      Necessity is a mother. If there's anyone who can make it profitable, it's the Japs.

    • by Sir Holo (531007)
      We have them near the surface in the Americas, too.
    • millions of gallons of acid and other toxic chemicals

      Maybe they plan to put that back where they took the mud out - China just dumps it into pools around the factory and the whole district is barely inhabitable. Not dealing with a jurisdictional environmental agency in the first world would help with the price effectiveness.

  • Is that like 200 nautical miles East from Fukushima?

  • by IHC Navistar (967161) on Monday July 04, 2011 @08:01PM (#36656552)

    JESUS H. CHRIST WITH A CHERRY ON TOP!

    THIS HAS BEEN KNOWN FOR *DECADES*!!!!!

    Geologists have know for decades that the oceans contain a vast quantity of minerals, including rare earths. The Glomar Explorer, for example was built to secretly salvage a sunken Soviet submarine. However, a realistic cover story was needed, so the Government settled on saying that it was a ship designed to recover manganese nodules (which contain a smorgasboard of minerals and rare earths, in addition to high concentrations of manganese, hence the name) that cover the ocean floor.

    The plausibility of the story rested in the fact that there *DO* exist extremely vast sources of minerals (including rare earths) on the sea floor.

    Honest to God, why do highly educated and credentialed people keep overlooking things that have been known for a years?!

    This should be grounds for revoking their credentials until they go back to school..... again.

    I can already see the next "discovery" headline:

    "Japanese researchers discover rotting fish stinks!"

    • Honest to God, why do highly educated and credentialed people keep overlooking things that have been known for a years?!

      I wouldn't even dare say that about the readers of Popular Science, but absolutely not the Slashdot readership. Subtract from it all those who don't post to correct some random dumbass on the Internet, or at all, and you've got.. us.

  • This is just basic economics at work. If there's still a demand and the cost goes up (or the current supply dries up), replacements will be found, or new, previously uneconomic sources become cost effective to tap.

  • This is not news. I am sure I read this story in Scientific American in 1963. Maybe 1964.

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