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.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.