Japanese scientists hit rare earth payload

Potentially huge deposits of rare earth minerals--critical components of high-tech electronic devices--are found on sea floor of Pacific Ocean, study reveals.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

The Pacific Ocean's deep sea mud is rich with rare earth minerals and the metal yttrium which can be easily extracted by acid leaching, according to a study. This discovery can help ease the supply strain for these minerals, say Japanese scientists.

The British journal Nature Geoscience published Sunday a study that claimed the deep sea mud in the Pacific Ocean is potentially the biggest source of rare earth mineral deposit in the world. The findings, which were contributed by a group of Japanese scientists from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, stated that deep sea mud at "numerous sites" throughout the eastern South and central North Pacific waters contains "high concentrations" of rare earth elements and yttrium.

"We estimate that an area of just one square kilometer, surrounding one of the sampling sites, could provide one-fifth of the current annual world consumption of these [rare earth] elements," the researchers said in their report.

Yasuhiro Kato, one of the participating scientists in the study, told news agency Reuters in a separate interview Monday that the deposits are in international waters in an area stretching east and west of Hawaii as well as east of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

He estimated that the rare earth minerals contained in the deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion metric tons. Comparatively, global reserves currently confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey of about 110 million tons are located mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries and the United States, Reuters reported.

The minerals are vital for making a range of high-tech electronics, magnets and batteries, it added.

Elaborating, Kato said the sea mud was especially rich in heavier rare earths such as gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium. "These are used to manufacture flat-screen TVs, light-emitting diode valves and hybrid cars," he noted.

The scientist, however, did not give an estimate of when extraction of the minerals from the seabed might start.

Reuters also noted that a "chronic shortage" of rare earths has encouraged mining projects for these minerals in recent years. China, which accounts for 97 percent of global rare earth supplies, has been tightening trade in these metals resulting in escalating prices.

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