Minamitorishima Island, a tiny Japanese island in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 800 miles away from the coast, contains staggering amounts of rare earth elements, minerals which are used in high-tech devices like smart phones, superconductors, and missile guidance systems.
Jack Lifton, a founding principal of Technology Metals Research LLC, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, says the discovery on Minamitorishima Island, could change Japan’s economy.
“This is a game-changer for Japan,” Lifton told The Journal. “The race to develop these resources is well under way.”
Discovery has Tremendous Potential
The researchers who helped discover the supply reported their findings in the journal, Scientific Reports.
According to the researchers, the 16 million tons of materials and the mud on the island may contain as much as 780 years’ worth of yttrium, 620 years’ worth of europium, 420 years’ worth of terbium, and 730 years’ worth of dysprosium.
According to the researchers this means Minamitorishima Island “has the potential to supply these materials on a semi-infinite basis to the world.”
The discovery also has significant geopolitical, strategic importance due to the current supply and demand of available rare earth minerals.
Could End Chinese Monopoly
While rare earth minerals are abundant, they very rarely are concentrated in easily exploitable ore deposits, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).
One recent USGS report noted, “most of the world’s supply of (rare earth elements) comes from only a handful of sources,” and continued, a long-term shortage or unavailability of the substances “would force significant changes in many technological aspects of American society.”
For instance, China controlled about 95 percent of the world’s rare earth material production in 2015. Due to its virtual monopoly power, the country sets prices and availability of rare earth minerals, and also severely restricts exports during times of diplomatic tension. A diplomatic conflict between China and Japan in 2010 resulted in China cutting its supply of rare earths to Japanese electronics manufacturers, leaving them with shortages and supply disruptions. According to the researchers, this new supply, over which Japan has complete economic control, “could be exploited in the near future.”
Oxides Are Valuable
Besides the size of the find and its strategic significance, the metals are also extremely valuable.
Some estimates already place the value at approximately $500 billion just for the rare earth oxides.
Yttrium currently sells for $3,400 per pound, Europium costs $20,000 per 100 grams, and Terbium sells for $1,800 per 100 grams. Dysprosium, presently the least expensive of the newly discovered supply of the rare-earth elements costs $450 per 100 grams.
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.