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How mineral-rich Japan can dictate world now?

China’s minister visited Tokyo for an economic dialogue last week not without a valid reason. Japan no longer needs China’s rare earth materials as it found a treasure of an island in its own backyard and the supply is semi-inifinite. This is what’s called turn-around in destiny.

Some precious “rare-earth” metals such as yttrium is vital to manufacture lasers, magnets, ceramic capacitors, oxidative agents, high-temperature superconductors, stainless steel, and PET scanners. Scientists in their new report on the island Minami-Tori-shima, also known as Marcus Island, said the mud is saturated with rare-earth elements and yttrium, abbreviated REY. Though Yttrium is not always classified as a rare-earth element, it is extremely rare.

The enriched mud has Yttrium and HREE (heavy rare earth elements), which accounted for 44 percent of the total amount of REY available in the region. It means Japan can supply Yttrium for 780 years, Europium (Eu) for 620 years, Terbium (Tb) for 420 years and Dysprosium (Dy) for the next 730 years, without any interruption.

What has puzzled scientists was the huge area with a high concentration of rare-earth elements, which in itself is very rare. The so-called rare-earth elements (REY) are not common on Earth and paleontologists believe that they could have been brought to earth from asteroids.

For instance, cerium is the 25th most abundant element within the Earth’s crust and is more prevalent than copper but widespread and never concentrated at one place, making it rare. In all, 17 different rare-earth elements are currently being mined in China, with Australia as the second-largest worldwide supplier.

It was in 2011 that research reports indicated huge REY-rich mud with mineral concentrations up to 2,230 ppm spread across the Pacific Ocean. In 2013, a report zeroed in on Japan’s isolated Marcus Island or Minamitori island which showed rich deposits of up to 5,000 ppm REY existed around the small coral atoll. The richest samples were up to 0.66 percent rare earth oxides, compared with a typical concentration of 0.05 to 0.5 percent for Chinese mines, said the report.

This latest survey of Minamitori island showed the total amount of rare earth material which can be potentially mined is more than 16 million tons of rare-earth oxides with an average 964 ppm, making it a semi-infinite basis to the world. The study found that the grains of rare earth material could be filtered by size, making it far easier to mine.

With its technological superiority, Japan is expected to mine the resources efficiently and keep it as a long-term resource and dilute china’s superiority in the field of rare earth materials.


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