On the floor of the Pacific Ocean, Japanese scientists discovered a 965-square-mile mud patch containing 16m tons of rare-earth metals — enough to meet global demand “on a semi-infinite basis.”
And we’re not talking gold doubloons here. This sunken treasure includes materials vital to smartphones and electric cars — and positions Japan to challenge China’s control over the rare-earth industry.
You can’t always borrow a cup of yttrium from your neighbor…
To bake up its primary exports (electronics and cars), Japan needs rare-earth metals. Lacking its own deposits, Japan has always had to go across the sea to borrow ingredients from China’s precious-metal pantry.
But in 2010, China drastically reduced its export quota for the 17 rare-earth metals — driving their price up 10x. Panicked by the price hike, Japan jumped into the ocean with a metal detector and a dream.
From magic mud to pricy product
Scanning their “exclusive economic zone” (an oceanic area of proprietary resource rights), Japan found mud that was chock full of yttrium, europium, terbium, and dysprosium — but couldn’t use it yet.
Turns out, pouring raw mud into the hood of a Tesla isn’t enough to make it run. Japan had to extract and synthesize the precious particles, and it didn’t take long for Japanese scientists to design a “hydrocyclone separator” to separate the good from the gritty.
A new chapter in the saga of mineral-mania
China, the only producer with reserves and the expensive industrial machinery to process them, has historically held the mineral market in a chokehold. Even after competition rose to meet demand, China’s market-share only slid from 93% to 86%.
Brazil, Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have had the reserves without processing power, while the US, Japan and Western Europe have had processing capacity without reserves — until now.
Japan’s huge reserve, backed by the modern-day alchemy to process it, will end China’s virtual mineral-monopoly. After the announcement, stock prices at Japan’s largest drilling company jumped 13%.