The island of Minami Torishima potentially has a 'semi infinite' supply of rare earths © World Meteorological Organization
The island of Minami Torishima potentially has a 'semi infinite' supply of rare earths © World Meteorological Organization

Japanese island could be rare earth elements 'game changer'

18 April 2018

A tiny, barren Japanese island could be about to dramatically shake up the world market in rare earth elements due to extraordinarily mineral-rich deep sea mud found off its coastline.

Economists have described the find at the island of Minami Torishima, 1,200km off the coast of Japan, as a “game changer”.

Japanese scientists wrote in a scientific paper published on nature.com that the find could provide semi-infinite supplies of certain rare earths.

Rare earths are used in high-tech devices including smart phones, wind turbines radars, medical and defence systems and hybrid vehicles. 

According to the paper the find gives access to 16m tonnes of materials, including 780 years worth of yttrium, 620 years worth of europium, 420 years worth of terbium, and 730 years worth of dysprosium.

The paper said the island “has the potential to supply these materials on a semi-infinite basis to the world”.

While the mud deposits were originally discovered in 2013 the team has just presented its paper showing the results of its analysis of the size of the find and the recoverability of rare earth and yttrium (REY) deposits within it.

“Given the huge resource amount [and] its high grade we believe that the REY-rich mud has great potential as ore deposits for some of the most critically important elements in the modern society,” said the team.

The huge find could give Japan an edge in the supply of rare earths over China. China currently supplies around 95% of rare earths and consequently has strong control over prices and availability.

CNN quoted the US Geological Survey (USGS) as saying that while the minerals are relatively abundant, they have “much less tendency to become concentrated in exploitable ore deposits”.

This makes a find of this scale even more important.

“Most of the world's supply of [rare earth elements] comes from only a handful of sources,” said the USGS.

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