Japan finds a huge cache of scarce rare-earth minerals

Japan looks to replace China as the primary source of critical metals

  • Enough rare earth minerals have been found off Japan to last centuries
  • Rare earths are important materials for green technology, as well as medicine and manufacturing
  • Where would we be without all of our rare-earth magnets?

Rare earth elements are a set of 17 metals that are integral to our modern lifestyle and efforts to produce ever-greener technologies. The "rare" designation is a bit of a misnomer: It's not that they're not plentiful, but rather that they're found in small concentrations, and are especially difficult to successfully extract since they blend in with and resemble other minerals in the ground. China currently produces over 90% of the world's supply of rare metals, with seven other countries mining the rest. So though they're not precisely "rare," they are scarce. In 2010, the U.S. Department of energy issued a report that warned of a critical shortage of five of the elements. Now, however, Japan has found a massive deposit of rare earths sufficient to supply the world's needs for hundred of years.

What are the rare earth elements?

(julie deshaies/Shutterstock)

The rare earth metals can be mostly found in the second row from the bottom in the Table of Elements. According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance, due to the "unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties, these elements help make many technologies perform with reduced weight, reduced emissions, and energy consumption; or give them greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability."

In order of atomic number, the rare earths are:

  • Scandium or Sc (21) — This is used in TVs and energy-saving lamps.
  • Yttrium or Y (39) — Yttrium is important in the medical world, used in cancer drugs, rheumatoid arthritis medications, and surgical supplies. It's also used in superconductors and lasers.
  • Lanthanum or La (57) — Lanthanum finds use in camera/telescope lenses, special optical glasses, and infrared absorbing glass.
  • Cerium or Ce (58) — Cerium is found in catalytic converters, and is used for precision glass-polishing. It's also found in alloys, magnets, electrodes, and carbon-arc lighting.
  • Praseodymium or Pr (59) — This is used in magnets and high-strength metals.
  • Neodymium or Nd (60) — Many of the magnets around you have neodymium in them: speakers and headphones, microphones, computer storage, and magnets in your car. It's also found in high-powered industrial and military lasers. The mineral is especially important for green tech. Each Prius motor, for example, requires 2.2 lbs of neodymium, and its battery another 22-33 lbs. Wind turbine batteries require 450 lbs of neodymium per watt.
  • Promethium or Pm (61) — This is used in pacemakers, watches, and research.
  • Samarium or Sm (62) — This mineral is used in magnets in addition to intravenous cancer radiation treatments and nuclear reactor control rods.
  • Europium or Eu (63) — Europium is used in color displays and compact fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Gadolinium or Gd (64) — It's important for nuclear reactor shielding, cancer radiation treatments, as well as x-ray and bone-density diagnostic equipment.
  • Terbium or Tb (65) — Terbium has similar uses to Europium, though it's also soft and thus possesses unique shaping capabilities .
  • Dysprosium or Dy (66) — This is added to other rare-earth magnets to help them work at high temperatures. It's used for computer storage, in nuclear reactors, and in energy-efficient vehicles.
  • Holmium or Ho (67) — Holmium is used in nuclear control rods, microwaves, and magnetic flux concentrators.
  • Erbium or Er (68) — This is used in fiber-optic communication networks and lasers.
  • Thulium or Tm (69) — Thulium is another laser rare earth.
  • Ytterbium or Yb (70) — This mineral is used in cancer treatments, in stainless steel, and in seismic detection devices.
  • Lutetium or Lu (71) — Lutetium can target certain cancers, and is used in petroleum refining and positron emission tomography.

Where Japan found is rare earths

(Chief Master Sergeant Don Sutherland, U.S. Air Force)

Minimatori Torishima Island

Japan located the rare earths about 1,850 kilometers off the shore of Minamitori Island. Engineers located the minerals in 10-meter-deep cores taken from sea floor sediment. Mapping the cores revealed and area of approximately 2,500 square kilometers containing rare earths.

Japan's engineers estimate there's 16 million tons of rare earths down there. That's five times the amount of the rare earth elements ever mined since 1900. According to Business Insider, there's "enough yttrium to meet the global demand for 780 years, dysprosium for 730 years, europium for 620 years, and terbium for 420 years."

The bad news, of course, is that Japan has to figure out how to extract the minerals from 6-12 feet under the seabed four miles beneath the ocean surface — that's the next step for the country's engineers. The good news is that the location sits squarely within Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone, so their rights to the lucrative discovery will be undisputed.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Radical theory says our Universe sits on an inflating bubble in an extra dimension

Cosmologists propose a groundbreaking model of the universe using string theory.

Getty Images/Suvendu Giri
Surprising Science
  • A new paper uses string theory to propose a new model of the Universe.
  • The researchers think our Universe may be riding a bubble expanded by dark energy.
  • All matter in the Universe may exist in strings that reach into another dimension.
Keep reading Show less

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Top Video Splash
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and things that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way.".