Japan team maps 'semi-infinite' rare earth reserves

April 11, 2018
"Rare earths" are found in several high tech products including mobile phones

Japanese researchers have mapped vast reserves of rare earth elements in deep-sea mud, enough to feed global demand on a "semi-infinite basis," according to a fresh study.

The deposit, found within Japan's exclusive economic waters, contains more than 16 million tons of the elements needed to build high-tech products from mobile phones to electric vehicles, according to the study, released Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

The team, comprised of several universities, businesses and government institutions, surveyed the western Pacific Ocean near Minamitorishima Island, Japan.

In a sample area of the mineral-rich region, the team's survey estimated 1.2 million tons of "rare earth oxide" deposited there, said the study, conducted jointly by Yutaro Takaya, researcher with Waseda University and Yasuhiro Kato of the University of Tokyo, among others.

The finding extrapolates that a 2,500-square kilometre region off the southern Japanese island should contain 16 million tons of the valuable elements, and "has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world," the study said.

The area reserves offer "great potential as ore deposits for some of the most critically important elements in modern society," it said.

The report said there were hundreds of years of reserves of most of the in the area surveyed.

The team has also developed an efficient method to separate valuable elements from others in the mud.

The world relies heavily on China for rare earths, with Beijing producing most of the elements currently available on the market.

But Beijing has severely restricted exports of these products at times of diplomatic tension.

In 2010, for example, Japanese manufacturers faced serious supply shortages as China limited the valuable exports.

That came after Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese trawler that was involved in a run-in with Japanese coastguards near the disputed Senkaku Islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyus.

The Japanese study stressed the importance of the efforts to develop efficient and economic methods to collect the deep-sea mud.

"The enormous resource amount and the effectiveness of the mineral processing are strong indicators that this new (rare- rich mud) resource could be exploited in the near future," the study said.

Explore further: Japan to survey Pacific seabed for rare earths

More information: Yutaro Takaya et al. The tremendous potential of deep-sea mud as a source of rare-earth elements, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-23948-5

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10 comments

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Jayarava
5 / 5 (3) Apr 11, 2018
"semi-infinite" is not a thing. Infinite is a thing. Finite is a thing. You can be one or the other. The word you were looking for was "large". Or "enough to supply demand for X years/centuries". This is supposed to be a *science* blog ffs.
Spaced out Engineer
4 / 5 (2) Apr 11, 2018
"semi-infinite" is not a thing. Infinite is a thing. Finite is a thing. You can be one or the other. The word you were looking for was "large". Or "enough to supply demand for X years/centuries". This is supposed to be a *science* blog ffs.

Conditional on the projection of other manufacturing constraints, given the forecasted demand, semi-infinite can make sense.
Cantor believed in different kinds of infinities. The continuum hypothesis has recently proven.
So the idea is that the pairing under-consideration, though finite, exceeds the anticipated need.
I will say rare earth magnets help when being ionized. https://www.bigge...den.com/
Light gold particle colliders to produce the materials, might be conditional on semi-infinte virtual photons.... though probably not.
What is interesting is that the map of the magnetism of the ocean floor is classified. And it consists of layered domains of cooled earth that change over time.
EnricM
not rated yet Apr 12, 2018
If this is up to expectations it is very good news indeed as it would release the pressure on African countries and reduce the instability in the region quite a lot.
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (1) Apr 12, 2018
Once the mining would require more energy than the energy produced with using of rare-earth products during their life-time, then their further mining will get economically unfeasible (despite still feasible technologically) and the reserves become "depleted". This is the way in which I understand that "semi-infinite reserves" concept.


Production of energy is not even the main use of rare earth elements. And you can also recycle them.

There is probably some minimal concentration below which extracting these elements is not worth the trouble. But it depends on their price, not energy.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Apr 12, 2018
Once the mining would require more energy than the energy produced with using of rare-earth products during their life-time

Because dredging up ocean floor mud is more energy intensive than mining? Oh wait. No. It isn't.
TrollBane
5 / 5 (1) Apr 12, 2018
Jayarava, did you decide not to notice the quotation marks that indicate the recognition of 'semi-infinite' as a questionable expression?
Da Schneib
not rated yet Apr 12, 2018
@anti, it depends how deep it is. Deep sea operations can be pretty expensive.

I'll also point out that it's not clear to me how good their sampling procedure was. If it's of limited scope, it's of limited value; if it was widely cast, it's much more likely to be accurate.

These points are probably worth investigating and I might do that later if I get bored.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (4) Apr 13, 2018
it depends how deep it is. Deep sea operations can be pretty expensive.

Looking at the article it seems like 5500 to 6000 meters deep.

if it was widely cast, it's much more likely to be accurate.

25 sampling points over 400km^2 area (not evenly distributed. They increased coring density in the 105km^2 area where the rare earth content increased. The mining estimate is based on the findings in the latter area)

As a country that has almost nothing in terms of resources I'm pretty sure Japan will go for this.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Apr 13, 2018
It's somewhat like mars. Here on earth all the easily-exploited deposits have been mined out, while sea bottom and Martian deposits are untouched. All we have to do is figure out how to get at them. We may even want to do some processing in situ with autonomous robotic plants, to reduce transport costs and surface pollution.

Undersea robotic mining and processing techniques may be directly applicable to other worlds which is also a plus.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Apr 13, 2018
It's somewhat like mars. Here on earth all the easily-exploited deposits have been mined out, while sea bottom and Martian deposits are untouched. All we have to do is figure out how to get at them. We may even want to do some processing in situ with autonomous robotic plants, to reduce transport costs and surface pollution.

Undersea robotic mining and processing techniques may be directly applicable to other worlds which is also a plus.

Hmmm... remembering the mining scenes from "Dune"...

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