Japan's 'Semi-Infinite' Rare-Earth Mineral Discovery Could Transform the Future of Tech

Wednesday, 18 April 2018 - 11:44AM
Wednesday, 18 April 2018 - 11:44AM
Japan's 'Semi-Infinite' Rare-Earth Mineral Discovery Could Transform the Future of Tech
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Image credit: YouTube

If you still remember high school chemistry, you might recognize the names cesium, chromium, and thorium, but what about Ytterbium, or Praseodymium, or Scandium?


Those last three are "rare-earth" minerals, which, despite being relatively obscure to laypeople, are part of the bedrock of our technologically advanced civilization—dysprosium, for example, is a key component of smartphones.


We've been steadily watching the world's reserve of rare-earth minerals become depleted over the past few years, but Japan has recently announced that they've discovered a new motherlode off their coast—and it looks like there will be enough "supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world."

China has been one of the main suppliers of rare-earth minerals to the world for years, which puts them in an extremely advantageous position: If anyone wants to make advanced tech, they need to buy the right minerals from Chinese suppliers.


Just to make it clear, here's a quick description of what makes rare-Earth minerals so crucial, courtesy of the Rare Earth Tech Alliance: "Because of their 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 essence, everything we take for granted about modern gadgets is possible only because there are enough rare-earth minerals to make them.


China has reported that they've begun to exhaust their deposits, which has driven speculation about using asteroid mining to feed the world's demand instead. Either way, extracting these minerals is extremely costly and difficult.


If the right method can be found, though, the new deposit of minerals found off the coast of Japan reportedly has enough yttrium, dysprosium, europium, and turbium to match the demand for 780 years, 730 years, 620 years, and 420 years, respectively.

"This is a game changer for Japan," says Jack Lifton, who belongs to the firm Technology Metals Research. 


Apart from having the exclusive rights to mine this deposit, Japan is a world leader in electronics, meaning that these metals could spark a change in how Japan does business—and how much everyone else pays for their gadgets.

Science News