A truly gigantic rare earth find in sea mud off the coasts of Tahiti and Honolulu has just been announced by a Japanese research team from the University of Tokyo, Reuters is reporting. At over 100 billion tons, the find vastly outweighs current (land-based) rare earth supplies currently being mined, mostly in China and Russia, of about 100 million tons.
“We estimate that an area of just one square kilometer surrounding one of the sampling sites could provide one-fifth of the current annual world consumption of these elements,” said Professor Yasuhiro Kato.
The find is significant because China has cut its exports in recent years as its demand has crept up on its supplies. Worldwide, exploration has been stepped up, and particularly by Japan, which had its supplies brutally cut over a political misstep a few years ago involving a straying Chinese fisherman.
Japan is particularly exposed to economic risk due to rare earth shortages, as electronics exports comprise a significant portion of its economy, and rare earths are needed in the manufacture of everything from cell phones to TV screens.
The shortage is alarming because rare earths are the raw materials needed to make many of the alternative energy solutions to the climate and peak oil crises, from hybrid electric cars to wind turbine parts, so the apparently incredible size of the find is very good news.
The Japanese researchers found the rare earth elements 4,000 to 5,000 meters down, in the sea mud on the ocean floor. Because of the location, however, it has prompted chortles in the rare earth mining industry – which till now has been land-based. “There’s no record to date of anyone mining at that depth,” says Tracy Weslosky, chairman of REE World, which follows the industry. “There’s probably gold on Pluto, too.”
No one would have thought it made sense to drill for oil five miles under sea off the US coastline, back in the 1940’s. But circumstances change. Current supplies are bumping up against current demand, worldwide.
Molycorp has just reopened a rare earth mine in California that had been closed decades ago because of competition from cheaper imports from China. The company has experienced changes in supply issues, both political, and geological. Experts within that company cautioned against ruling out the significance of the find merely based on today’s costs.
“We didn’t always drill for oil offshore, but we learned how,” said Stanley Trout, director of Molycorp’s magnet business. “Mining there for rare earths is going to take some time.”
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