Huge discovery of rare earth elements could end China’s iron grip on the tech industry

An enormous amount of rare earth minerals has been found off the coast of Japan, and we could potentially see the entire global economy transform before our very eyes as a result.

Specifically, the deep-sea mud is replete with “rare-earth elements and yttrium” (REY) which play a significant role in the technological industries and ultimately keep propelling the global economy in a forward direction.

“Applications of REY span a wide range, including hybrid vehicles, rechargeable batteries, wind turbines, light emitting diodes, compact fluorescent lamps, screen display panels, and many medical and military technologies,” explained researcher Yutaro Takaya.

Japan is currently the world’s second-largest consumer of these rare minerals, and although the island nation remains at the mercy of whatever prices China sets, that may very well change in the not-so-distant future due to this massive new discovery. (Related: China stockpiles tens of thousands of tons of rare earth minerals.)

According to the study, the stockpile of minerals is enough to potentially supply the entire world for hundreds of years: “The research area was estimated to be able to supply Y [yttrium], Eu [europium], Tb [terbium], and Dy [dysprosium] for 780, 620, 420 and 730 years, respectively, and has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world.”

But even though the news of the mineral stockpile is interesting and even exciting to a certain degree, it’s important to keep in mind that Japan is still faced with the daunting task of actually harvesting the minerals from deep underground. Currently, the minerals are 6000 meters deep in the ocean, and even though the Japanese researchers have developed what they think will be an effective method for extracting the minerals, questions remain regarding how the method could best be carried out in practice. (Related: Your green energy may not be so green after all, because the rare earth elements found in solar panels and wind turbines are highly polluting.)

As it stands right now, there simply aren’t any profitable methods of extracting the minerals from their current position 6000 meters beneath the seabed. Employing current methods to remove only 1000 tons of metals would call for the removal of over one million tons of mud, a task that simply isn’t practical given the conditions present.

Furthermore, another concern regarding the extraction of these minerals is the question of whether or not Japan will be able to wean itself off of its dependence on China in the foreseeable future. Typically, it takes an average of ten years to move a rare earth discovery such as this one into a producing mine. This could very well hinder Japan’s ambitions and prevent any real progress from happening for a relatively long period of time.

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