In 2010, China pushed rare-earth prices up as much as 10 times by cutting its export quota. Here, a rare-earth metals mine in the country’s Jiangxi province.
TOKYO—Japan has hundreds of years’ worth of rare-earth metal deposits in its waters, according to new research that reflects Tokyo’s concern about China’s hegemony over minerals used in batteries and electric vehicles.
The deposits were found in the Pacific Ocean seabed near remote Minamitori Island, about 1,150 miles southeast of Tokyo. Extracting them would likely be costly, but resource-poor Japan is pushing ahead with research in hopes of getting more control over next-generation technologies and weapon systems.
A roughly 965-square-mile seabed near the island contains more than 16 million tons of rare-earth oxides, estimated to hold 780 years’ worth of the global supply of yttrium, 620 years’ worth of europium, 420 years’ worth of terbium and 730 years’ worth of dysprosium, according to a study published this week in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports.
The U.S. Department of Energy and the European Union have issued warnings about shortages of rare earths as China’s own consumption of them increases.
“This is a game changer for Japan,” said Jack Lifton, a founding principal of Technology Metals Research LLC who wasn’t involved in the research. “The race to develop these resources is well under way.”
Mr. Lifton, whose company consults for technology firms and investors interested in rare-earth metals, said there were also cobalt- and nickel-bearing deposits on seabeds near Australia and New Zealand.
In 2010, China pushed rare-earth prices up as much as 10 times by cutting its export quota on 17 elements by 40% from the previous year. It said it wanted to clean up a polluting industry, but the move left Japan seeking more independence from prices dictated by its neighbor. Japanese manufacturers have since lowered the amount of rare-earth metals in batteries and motors.
“It is important to secure our own source of resources, given how China controls the prices,” said Waseda University Prof. Yutaro Takaya, who led the study.
Still, isolating rare-earth minerals from mud hundreds of meters underwater is expensive. More research needs to be done on methods of extracting the rare earths continuously, Prof. Takaya said. A Japanese consortium of government-backed entities, corporations including Toyota Motor Corp. and research institutions hopes to conduct a feasibility test within the next five years, the researchers said.
Large rare-earth deposits are found in many nations, but China dominates the field largely because it also has businesses to process the minerals into materials usable in industrial applications.
Prof. Takaya and his team said they found that they could reduce the cost of processing seabed sludge by using a hydrocyclone separator. The device spins the mud to separate out calcium-phosphate grains that contain more rare-earth minerals than other grains.