Huge rare earth deposits found in Pacific: Japan experts

TOKYO Mon Jul 4, 2011 2:58am EDT

Marks made by an excavator is pictured at the old site of a rare earth metals mine on the outskirts of Longnan county, in Jiangxi Province October 27, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Marks made by an excavator is pictured at the old site of a rare earth metals mine on the outskirts of Longnan county, in Jiangxi Province October 27, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Vast deposits of rare earth minerals, crucial in making high-tech electronics products, have been found on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and can be readily extracted, Japanese scientists said on Monday.

"The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometer (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption," said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo.

The discovery was made by a team led by Kato and including researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

They found the minerals in sea mud extracted from depths of 3,500 to 6,000 meters (11,500-20,000 ft) below the ocean surface at 78 locations. One-third of the sites yielded rich contents of rare earths and the metal yttrium, Kato said in a telephone interview.

The deposits are in international waters in an area stretching east and west of Hawaii, as well as east of Tahiti in French Polynesia, he said.

He estimated rare earths contained in the deposits amounted to 80 to 100 billion metric tons, compared to global reserves currently confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey of just 110 million tonnes that have been found mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries, and the United States.

Details of the discovery were published on Monday in the online version of British journal Nature Geoscience.

The level of uranium and thorium -- radioactive ingredients that are usually contained in such deposits that can pose environmental hazards -- was found to be one-fifth of those in deposits on land, Kato said.

A chronic shortage of rare earths, vital for making a range of high-technology electronics, magnets and batteries, has encouraged mining projects for them in recent years.

China, which accounts for 97 percent of global rare earth supplies, has been tightening trade in the strategic metals, sparking an explosion in prices.

Japan, which accounts for a third of global demand, has been stung badly, and has been looking to diversify its supply sources, particularly of heavy rare earths such as dysprosium used in magnets.

Kato said the sea mud was especially rich in heavier rare earths such as gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium.

"These are used to manufacture flat-screen TVs, LED (light-emitting diode) valves, and hybrid cars," he said.

Extracting the deposits requires pumping up material from the ocean floor. "Sea mud can be brought up to ships and we can extract rare earths right there using simple acid leaching," he said.

"Using diluted acid, the process is fast, and within a few hours we can extract 80-90 percent of rare earths from the mud."

The team found that sites close to Hawaii and Tahiti were especially rich in rare earths, he said.

He gave no estimate of when extraction of the materials from the seabed might start.

(Reporting by El Tan in Hong Kong and Yuko Inoue in Tokyo; Editing by Michael Watson)

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Comments (20)
CSRain wrote:
Sweet!! I didn’t know we were going to rape the land UNDER the ocean!

Jul 03, 2011 8:35pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
EN3 wrote:
I guess the tree huggers will be crying, “Oh No the Kelp!” Thankfully Japan is not a environmentaly psychopathic as the united states is, truthfully most people in the united states are not that crazy either but that doesn’t matter anymore in the united states, if 250 million people will benefit from something but only 5 people crying complain we have to listen to the 5 people. The news media and politicians are afraid of insulting anyone.
Japan dig it up quick before the crying starts. Just think they’ll be a new tv show out of this “KELP WARS”

Jul 03, 2011 9:16pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
bao wrote:
It’s good these were found underneath the ocean. Now the US doesn’t have to find some bogus reason to invade some country and rape-torture-kill the locals.

Jul 03, 2011 9:18pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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