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Saturday, June 30, 2012
Major rare earth deposit found near remote isle of Minamitorishima
A group of researchers says it has found a mineral deposit that could contain massive amounts of rare earth minerals in the seabed around the island of Minamitorishima about 2,000 km southeast of Tokyo.
The group, headed by University of Tokyo professor Yasuhiro Kato, an expert in earth resources, said Thursday that an estimated 6.8 million tons of rare earth metals, including dysprosium, could exist in the mud in the deposit, which is within Japan's exclusive economic zone.
That amount would be equivalent to some 230 years' worth of domestic consumption of the minerals, which are indispensable for making high-tech products like hybrid cars and cellphones.
Once a mining technique is developed to secure the minerals from the seabed, Japan, which now relies mostly on China for rare earths, may be able to attain complete self-sufficiency.
The team drilled at three locations 5,600 meters below the surface off Minamitorishima, which belongs to the Ogasawara chain.
Mud samples contained up to 1,700 parts per million of rare earths such as yttrium. The average concentration was 1,070 ppm, the group said.
Highly concentrated rare earth minerals were also found in samples collected about 180 km north of the island.
Considering the findings, the team estimates that mud containing rare earth minerals could spread over an area measuring 1,000 sq. km.
Even with current technology, it is possible to collect at least 15,000 tons of the mud per day, Kato said, adding exploration should be carried out as soon as possible to determine where rare earth minerals can be collected most efficiently.
Currently, China accounts for more than 90 percent of the rare earth elements produced in the world. Since 2010, it has reduced its export quotas, arguing the restraints are justified to protect its natural resources and environment.
Japan, together with the United States and the European Union, on Wednesday asked the World Trade Organization to establish a panel to determine whether China's export restrictions on rare earth minerals are permissible under WTO trade rules.