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Japanese researchers discover new supply of rare earths

However, the specific rare earths found may not be those of most value to industry

by Jean-François Tremblay
April 20, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 17

A photo of the Japanese island of Minamitori Shima.
Credit: CMSGT Don Sutherland
Japanese researchers have found significant deposits of rare earths near this island.

Japanese researchers have identified what they believe to be a near-infinite source of certain rare-earth elements on the seabed near an island belonging to Japan.

In a paper recently published in the journal Scientific Reports (2018, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-23948-5), researchers described their analysis of mud samples taken near Minamitori Shima, an island located almost 2,000 km southeast of Tokyo. They found the samples rich enough in terbium, yttrium, europium, and dysprosium to satisfy world demand for hundreds of years. Without specifying the depth of the seabed, the researchers claimed the mud is “easy to extract.”

Rare earths are elements with unique and often desirable properties. Neodymium, for example, can be used to make very strong magnets that are essential to electronic devices, including some lab instruments. Companies that use rare earths in their products began looking at alternative materials after China, the world’s largest producer by a wide margin, introduced export quotas in 2012.

But sourcing rare earths from the seabed may not ultimately make economic sense, warns Judith Chegwidden, who recently retired as a rare-earth consultant at Roskill, a London-based market research firm.

“There are many more-accessible deposits around the world,” she says. In addition, the Japanese mud contains a lot of yttrium and europium, elements already readily available. “The deposits worth looking at are those containing a high proportion of neodymium,” she says.


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