April 08, 2013, 11:42 AM — Hafnium, indium, neodymium, erbium, europium... Nope, I'm not singing the Elements Song (heads up, readers susceptible to earworms!); I'm just listing a few of the rare earth transition metals that make up most of the electronic guts of the world's high technology.
"Rare earth" refers to the scarcity of easily-mined ores of the elements. Last month, we discussed a breakthrough in large-scale electrolysis that could make refining these ores and oxides much easier; now, Japan's announcement of the discovery of a huge deposit of rare-earth minerals could make the market that much more competitive.
For us, that means cheaper electronics. If Japan can produce its own rare earth metals, as opposed to depending on imports from China (where 97% of rare earth metals in the world are produced), then China will have to lower its own prices on metals to remain commercially competitive. Breaking China's monopoly on rare-earth resources could have wide-ranging consequences for the entire electronics industry.
This is the second major deposit discovery made by Japan in the last two years. A team led by Yasuhiro Kato of the University of Tokyo found caches near Hawaii and Tahiti in 2011 that were so rich in rare-earths that one square kilometer of seabed could produce as much as 20% of the world's annual consumption. Now, they've discovered a second plot of rich mud at the bottom of the Pacific.
Undersea mining has its own set of environmental issues; it's not entirely clear yet how the techniques used can disrupt deep-sea life. Kato and his team will be investigating the new cache in a two-year study before attempting to start the mining process.