Rare earths are highly sought after, and the search for locations to mine them continues to take interesting twists. The metals, a group of 17 elements with names such as yttrium and dysprosium, are used in everything from cars and missiles to smart phones and green energy products.
The problem is that China mines more than 90 percent of the world’s rare earths, and also accounts for 60 percent of the world’s consumption by tonnage. At the same time, China has imposed significant quotas last year to limit exports of rare earths. Finally, China also raised export taxes on rare earths to as much as 25 percent, on top of value-added taxes of 17 percent.
Some critics say Beijing’s strategy is to drive up global prices of the metals and force foreign firms to relocate to China to access the metals. But at the same time, Beijing says the restrictions are necessary to conserve the highly sought-after natural resources, limit harm to the environment from excessive mining, and meet domestic demand.
So the search for rare earths and viable sites to mine them continues. As has been previously noted, space has already been targeted, and remains a possible, and increasingly discussed, location. Indeed, the moon and asteroid mining are lucrative prospects, according to researchers and tech firms gathered in Sydney for the world’s first formal “Off-Earth Mining Forum,” reports IndustryWeek. Most of the technology already exists, but there needs to be a business case for it, says conference convenor Andrew Dempster, of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering, in the article.
More easily reached, is the bottom of the ocean, which presents its own challenges. An article in The Telegraph explains that Japanese scientists recently discovered vast reserves of rare earth metals on the Pacific seabed. Leader of the team, Professor Yasuhiro Kato from Tokyo University, says the deposits are just two to four meters from the seabed surface at higher concentrations than anybody ever thought existed—and they won’t cost much to extract.
The latest discovery is in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone in deep-sea mud around the island of Minami-Torishima at 5,700 meters below sea level. Although it is very deep, the deposits are in highly-concentrated nodules that can be extracted using pressurized air with minimal disturbance off the seafloor and no need for the leaching, Professor Kato says. The exploration will continue for another two years before scaling up towards production, he predicts.
Other sources aren’t quite so distant, and mining won’t be so difficult. Indeed, Wired explains that according to the findings of a Japanese mining company, Jamaica may be home to a large source of rare earth minerals. Other sources reported on remarks from Jamaica’s science, technology, energy and mining minister, Philip Paulwell, who said that Jamaica’s red mud contains “high concentrations of rare-earth elements.”
After gaining independence in 1962, Jamaica’s economy experienced an initial period of extremely high growth, driven in part by the mining of bauxite, which leaves behind large quantities of red mud that can now be reappropriated as a source of rare earth minerals. That’s good news for the country, the article continues, because Japanese firm Nippon Light Metal is willing to invest $3 million in buildings and equipment for a pilot project to see if it can extract a hoped-for 1,500 tons of rare earth oxides each year.
Finally, other possible sources are even closer to home. Newsminer.com reports that, following up on promising geological surveys of Alaska’s rare earth elements, the Alaska Senate passed a resolution aimed at promoting the in-state exploration and production of elements critical to building high-tech consumer electronics, military, and clean-energy technology. Even closer, federal government has approved an Arkansas company’s plans to drill for rare earth minerals along the Idaho border in western Montana, according to an article that ran in The Missoulian. The article notes that U.S. Rare Earths said it will begin core sample drilling in the Sheep Creek area on Lemhi Pass in May.
While promising, it will still take years for the rare earths mining efforts to yield results. In the meantime, has your company been effected by rare earths’ shortages?