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Lutetium, one of the four metals identified in a gigantic new haul of rare earth metals.
Lutetium, one of the four metals identified in a gigantic new haul of rare earth metals.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Japan unearths gigantic haul of rare earth minerals

The 100-billion-ton stash found by Japan could be used for electronics – but an ownership battle may be brewing.
Jul 4th 2011, 1:57 PM 1,461 6

JAPANESE MARINE RESEARCHERS have identified a gigantic stash of rare earth materials – a 100-billion-ton find that dwarfs all previous discoveries of the metals.

The finding of the metals – such as terbium, gadolinium, lutetium and dysprosium – is a massive boost to the country, given the metals’ applications in the manufacture of electronic goods like flat-screen TVs and hybrid cars.

The discovery is approximately 1,000 times larger than the total amount of the metals currently in reserve – and could reduce the price of those consumer goods, which have increased following moves by China to slow production.

BBC News reported that China currently produces 97 per cent of the world’s rare earth metals – a production that could become negligible if it proves commercially viable for the new discoveries to be exploited.

The metals were found by a team of scientists from the University of Tokyo, which identified the metals in sea mud at 78 locations. The discoveries lie between 3.5km and 6km under the surface of the ocean.

“We estimate that an area of just one square kilometre, surrounding one of the sampling sites, could provide one-fifth of the current annual world consumption of these elements,” its authors wrote.

RTT News explained that rare earth elements are usually recovered through the relatively simple process called acid leaching, meaning that mining the metals may not prove exceptionally difficult.

But an ownership row over the haul may not be far away – with Sky News reporting that the USA may opt to stake a claim in the discovery, given the proximity of Hawaii to many of the discovery sites.

Both countries will be reluctant to set about unearthing the metals, however, given the sheer scale of the sites – because they may risk oversupplying the market and pulling down the price of the commodities.

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Gavan Reilly

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