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Japan’s Tech Future Is Looking Brighter After a Monumental Discovery in the North Pacific Mud

April 12, 2018, 11:44 AM UTC
Molycorp Mountain Pass Rare Earths Mining Facility
Rocky Smith, plant manager of Molycorp Inc. Mountain Pass rare earths mining and processing facility, holds a handful of rocks containing rare earth elements during a media tour in Mountain Pass, California, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 13, 2010. Molycorp Inc. said it has secured the last of several environmental permits necessary to begin a $500 million modernization and expansion project at the mine. Photographer: Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Jacob Kepler — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Every day, we use products that are built using “rare earths”—a group of 17 elements that are, as the name suggests, very rare. They’re used to make everyday items such as rechargeable batteries, LED lights and display panels, as well as larger products such as wind turbines.

Now, it turns out, Japan has an estimated 16 million tons of the stuff on its turf. And researchers claim the trove might be enough to supply the world with metals such as yttrium and europium on a “semi-infinite basis.”

To put it mildly, this is good news for Japan’s industrial sector. The world’s biggest source of rare earths is by far China, which has in the past halted exports to Japan when the two countries have been at odds (on that occasion, it was a dispute over islands). That sort of leverage seems likely to dissipate, thanks to the new find.

According to research published in Nature on April 10, the new stash of rare earths is located in deep-sea mud off the tiny island of Minamitori, some 1,150 miles southeast of Tokyo in the north Pacific.

Getting at the resources will be an issue, given that they’re almost four miles underwater. However, after the research came out, shares in relevant companies soared. Since then, Japan Drilling is up 13% and Modec (MDIKF), a Japanese supplier and operator of offshore floating platforms, is up 5%.

“It is important to secure our own source of resources, given how China controls the prices,” said Yutaro Takaya, the Waseda University professor who led the study, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.

“These elements are critical for future generations of technology and Tokyo responded [to China’s 2010 actions] by immediately seeking out new sources, including Mongolia, in order to secure shipments and maintain Japan’s technological edge,” Stephen Nagy of Tokyo’s International Christian University told the South China Morning Post.