China pretty much has a chokehold on the market for rare-earth metals, but a recent discovery off the coast of Japan could offer some competition.
Because of their unique chemical properties, rare-earth metals are important in the production of electronics and even hybrid and electric vehicles.
Rare-earth metals are found around the world, but they are very difficult to extract, which has led most mines to cease their efforts. This is in no small part due to China’s continued mining of the precious resource, driving most other competition out of the market in the 1990s.
China produces about 97% of global rare-earth metals, and since they limit exports, many electronics businesses have moved manufacturing to China to take advantage of local supplies.
Still, limited supplies of rare-earth metals keeps the price of electronics, rechargeable batteries, and electric motors very high. This, in turn, drives up the price of computers and portable electronics as well as hybrid and electric vehicles.
A new source of rare-earth metals was discovered a couple of years ago by scientists at Tokyo University which could open up the market and give China a run for its money.
Off the coast of Japan, 18,700ft below see level in the mud at the base of Minami-Torishama Island, scientists have found deposits of rare-earth metals. Despite the depth, mining these metals isn’t particularly difficult, a the mud and silt can be extracted for processing using compressed-air, leaving surrounding areas undisturbed. What’s really remarkable about these muddy rare-earth metal deposits is their concentration, about 1,000x that of Chinese rare-earth mines on land.