Japan's identification of a massive rare earth deposit is a testament to the efforts of the archipelago, the world's second largest consumer of these strategic minerals, to reduce its dependence on China against the backdrop of growing demand and rising prices
Japanese scientists unveiled this week that deposits located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) could contain more than 16 million tonnes of rare earths, which, according to them, cover several centuries of global needs.
Rare earths are a group of 17 metallic elements that have become essential in the manufacture of high-tech products, such as wind turbines, smartphones, and electric motors.
Japan currently relies heavily on China, which concentrates 90% of the production (about 150,000 tons in 2016) and therefore controls this ultra-strategic market.
In 2011, the Asian giant caused a momentary surge in prices and a real crisis on the world market by applying export quotas.
If these quotas no longer exist, the market tightened again last year and prices jumped, although much less than in 2011. Because on one side China has limited production and struggled against illegal mines, and on the other hand, announcements have multiplied in favor of electric vehicles and the development of renewable energies, which consume a lot of rare earths.
– 'Actor of weight' –
Faced with this situation, many countries are trying to emancipate themselves from Chinese domination. Outside China, 38 projects are in various stages of development, according to an assessment by the specialized firm Adamas Intelligence
The Japanese archipelago is no exception, notably by investing in deposits in the world. The public body dedicated to raw materials Jogmec and the Sojitz group, for example, financed the Australian mining group Lynas, the largest non-Chinese producer, in exchange for part of its production.
The country is also developing the recycling of products containing rare earths to recover precious minerals. "The Japanese are already a major player in this market and seek in many ways to overcome any dependence on Chinese supplies," confirms AFP Gaétan Lefebvre, expert at the French Bureau of Geological and Mining Research (BRGM
Japan "must prepare for the possibility that prices will rise again", which could then make offshore oil fields competitive, and "contribute to Japan's security of supply", explains AFP Yutaro Takaya, researcher at Waseda University, and contributor to the study unveiled this week
The estimate of these resources is indeed "impressive", observes Ryan Castilloux, director of the cabinet Adamas Intelligence
Scientists have estimated that the present amount of dysprosium, an element used for example in permanent magnets, accounted for 730 years of world consumption, while yttriu reserves m, entering the manufacture of lasers, were likely to meet the needs of the industry for 780 years.
– The Challenge of Extraction –
But the Japanese field, although promising, is still far from being exploitable, not to mention environmental issues, experts say.
"It will take several years to determine whether an exploitation is feasible, "notes M. Castilloux.
" Nothing says that the entire deposit can be economically extracted "and" competitively compared to the onshore deposits ", in particular Chinese, judge Mark Hannington, geologist at the Geomar (Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research) in Kiel, Germany
Currently, there is no cost-effective technique for exploiting this type of deposit, located at such great depths (more than 5,000 meters). "Only pilot projects have been carried out," he says.
And given the low concentration of rare earths, less than 1% of submarine sludge, "that means that to recover 1,000 tons of rare earth oxide, one million tonnes of sludge would have to be treated, "explains Mr. Castilloux.
" There are millions and millions of tonnes of rare earths in other previously identified terrestrial deposits that I believe are more attractive options, "he says.
" Work must continue to develop ways to bring the sludge back to the surface, "says Takaya. The researchers hope to achieve this "in five years", according to him, even if he admits that "the cost will be a challenge."
Last year, the Institute of Geological Studies of the United States ( USGS) estimated the world's rare earth reserves at 120 million tonnes, including 44 million in China, 22 million in Brazil, and 18 million in Russia.