Japan just announced that they’ve discovered a deposit of rare earth minerals off their coast in the Pacific Ocean that, if commercially viable, could change the worldwide market for the expensive materials. The deposit could yield as much as 80 to 100 billion tonnes of rare earth minerals and though Japan isn’t being specific about which materials they’ve found there, it is likely to contain gold and copper. China currently holds an estimated 97% of the world’s stores of rare earth minerals, which are used in many high tech gadgets like solar panels, cell phones, television sets and vehicles. Will Japan’s find change all of that?
“The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometre (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption,” said team leader and associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, Yasuhiro Kato. The deposits were found at depths of 11,500 to 20,000 feet in at least 78 locations on the sea floor east and west of Hawaii and east of French Polynesia.
This discovery has increased the estimated amount of rare earth mineral reserves — according to the US Geological Survey who estimated them at 110 million tonnes — by tenfold. It is expected that many teams are going to be quick on the task of figuring out the technology needed to efficiently mine these minerals and that has environmentalists around the world worried about the possible destruction of this delicate environment. Mining for rare earth minerals can be quite destructive and their inclusion in many green technologies has been a point of contention for green techies. Toyota and GE are currently on the task of reducing their environmental impact by developing advanced technologies that reduce the amount of rare earth minerals conventionally used in gadgets.