According to the US Geological Survey, global reserves of rare earth minerals, found primarily in the United States, China, Russia and some other parts of the former Soviet Bloc, amount to only around 110 million tonnes.
A clear monopoly, even within these countries, where the mining and supply of these extremely valuable commodities is concerned, belongs to China, which is responsible for producing 97% of the world's supply of rare earth metals.
However, this could be set to change, with Japan’s recent discovery of vast deposits, likely to amount to around 100 billion tonnes, of rare earth minerals in the Pacific seabed.
The viability of mining these recently found mineral deposits, however, still needs to be examined, but if logistics do work out, it would basically mean an end to China's monopoly within this particular industry sector.
Rare Earth Minerals; Use and Production
Global demand for rare earth minerals, especially the metal yttrium, has been growing quite rapidly, given the crucial role played by these in applications related to green-energy technologies and manufacturing hi-tech electronics such as TV sets, air conditioners, digital cameras, etc, which all use a lot of rare earths.
While rare earths are actually not that rare, their extraction and processing methods are quite elaborate and messy and most countries seem to have left this up to China. As a result, China has, over time, established a near monopoly on the global supply of rare earths.
It was on the basis of this apparent monopoly that China was able to restrain the supply of rare earths last year during a territorial dispute with Japan. With Japan’s economic growth being closely associated with the manufacturing and supply of high-tech products, following the supply shortage created by China’s reported embargo, Japan sought new sources of rare earth minerals.
The recent find, declared by a team of scientists led by Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, which estimates that the Pacific seabed, in international waters east and west of Hawaii, and east of Tahiti in French Polynesia, contains around 100 billion tonnes of rare earths, could prove to be of extreme value to Japan, if mining these minerals proves viable.
And though Japan isn’t being specific about which materials they’ve found there, reports say that the find is likely to contain gold and copper.
Found at depths of 3,500 to 6,000 metres (11,500-20,000 ft) below the ocean surface, the deposits, according to associate professor Yasuhiro Kato, “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."
The minerals have been found in sea mud at 78 locations within the specified stretch of the Pacific seabed.
Given the rapid growth in green technology and hi-tech electronics sectors, the need and use of rare earth metals in only increasing.
On the other hand, processes related to deep sea mining for precious metals, and the damage these could cause to marine ecosystems are becoming an increasing concern for environmentalists. Radioactive waste that could be produced as a result of some of these mining processes is also a strong concern.