Rare earths are vital to modern electronics and electrical engineering. They are relatively non-toxic and more effective compared to alternatives. See the IDTechEx report, Toxicant Materials and Alternatives in Electronics and Electrical Engineering 2018-2028.
Rare earth neodymium is used in permanent magnets for wind generators, electric vehicles and more. Some motor generators have moved to asynchronous versions to avoid price hikes due to rare earths but they are not as small or efficient. Rare earth lanthanum is a major part of NiMH batteries.
China supplies 95% of the world's rare earths from rich clays in its northern regions. Former leader Deng Xiaoping called that its, "new oil". China even throttled Japan's supply during a dispute over ownership of some islands, hitting output of the Toyota Prius.
According to the US Geological Survey, while the minerals are relatively abundant elsewhere, they have "much less tendency to become concentrated in exploitable ore deposits. Most of the world's supply of (rare earth elements) comes from only a handful of sources," adding that long-term shortage or unavailability of the substances "would force significant changes in many technological aspects of American society."
Tokyo mud trove
According to a new paper published by a team of Japanese researchers, a huge patch of mineral-rich deep sea mud with "enormous potential" lies near Minamitori Island, a small island 1,200 kilometers (790 miles) off the coast of Japan. It is still technically a part of Tokyo, in the village of Ogasawara, and falls within Japan's economic borders.
One economist calls it a "game changer", estimated at 16 million tons. It is a massive, "semi-infinite" store of valuable rare earth compounds needed for smartphones, missile systems, radar devices and hybrid vehicles. For example, yttrium, one of the metals included in this recent discovery, can be used to make camera lenses, superconductors and cell phone screens.
The 16 million tons could contain 780 years' worth of yttrium, 620 years' worth of europium, 420 years' worth of terbium used in fluorescent bulbs, actuators and sonar, and 730 years worth of dysprosium used in nuclear reactors, data storage and transformers. In other words, according to the paper, it "has the potential to supply these materials on a semi-infinite basis to the world."
Now, Japan has complete economic control over the new supply, and the study said all indications are the new resource "could be exploited in the near future."
While the discovery is exciting, experts point out there is a long way to go before the enormous store of resources can actually be extracted and used. Tom Crafford, the Mineral Resources Program Coordinator at the USGS, told CNN the mineral-rich mud will be difficult to reach. "The water gaps here are on the order of five or six kilometers, in the range of 16,000 to 20,000 feet," he says. "That's pretty severe. You'd really require some very sophisticated technology to operate at these kinds of depths."
This, however, could eventually be a huge opportunity as companies and countries expand their sea floor mining technology just as deep offshore oil reinvigorated engineering in Scotland. There is a lot of international interest in sea floor mining as a new frontier of robotics but there has not been significant commercialization of it yet and environmental impact must be considered despite China showing little concern for the impact of its militarisation of islands in the South China Sea recently.
Top image: Deep sea mining robot by Nautilus Minerals