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Saturday, March 12, 2011
Harvesting rare-earth metals
Rare-earth metals are called "vitamins for industry" because the addition of trace amounts to such metals as iron, copper and aluminum boost their quality, making them stronger, more pliable or more viscous. They are used in many products, including cell phones, electric cars, medical treatment devices, aircraft and nuclear reactor control rods. Rare-earth metals are indispensable for the manufacture of efficient motors for electric cars and the parts used in information technology devices.
China produces some 90 percent of the world's rare-earth metals. Japan relies on imports from China for most of these vital metals. Last fall, Japan learned a hard lesson when China suddenly restricted the export of its rare-earth metals. The Chinese government in mid-February strengthened the control of such metals and placed priority on supplying domestic consumption. Steep price rises for rare-earth metals appear inevitable.
In view of this situation, Japan's trade and industry ministry is pushing a policy of cutting the domestic demand for rare-earth metals, which is annually about 30,000 tons, by about 10,000 tons. It is also pushing for the stockpiling of rare-earth metals, the creation of substitutes and the development of technology to mine such metals from hydrothermal deposits in the Sea of Japan.
In addition to these steps, Japan should push a project to extract rare-earth metals from discarded electronic devices. For example, cell phone batteries contain lithium, liquid-crystal displays contain indium and vibration motors contain neodymium. A large amount of rare-earth metals can be extracted from electronic devices if they are integrated into the nation's recycling system for electronic products.
The central government should move quickly to establish a new recycling system, to develop technology to extract rare-earth metals from electronic devices, and to encourage local governments to create a collection system that will facilitate the extraction of such metals.