Business, Economics and Jobs

Japan finds rare earths in Pacific


Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces Apple's iPad 2 in San Francisco on March 2, 2011.


Kimihiro Hoshino

Japanese researchers have reportedly found up to 100 billion tons of rare earths in the Pacific seabed, threatening to challenge China's monopoly over the hi-tech minerals.

Japanese geologists estimate there are 80 billion to 100 billion deposits of rare earths in the mud of the Pacific Ocean's floor, the BBC reports. The researchers found the minerals at a depth of 11,500 to 20,000 feet below the surface. They reportedly cover an area of over 11 million square meters.

(More from GlobalPost: Rare earths, explained)

A team of scientists led by Yasuhiro Kato found the minerals at 78 locations, according to a study published in the British journal Nature Geoscience.

"The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometre (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption," Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, told BBC.

China currently accounts for 97 percent of the production of the world's rare earths. This monopoly on the minerals, which are used in many high tech appliances, has enabled China to control the supply of them. This led to a territorial dispute with Japan last year.

The 17 rare-earth elements are needed to produce "electric cars, flat-screen TVs, iPods, superconducting magnets, lasers, missiles, night-vision goggles, wind turbines and many other advanced products," AFP reports.

The elements are in abundant in the planet's crust, but there are few deposit sites that are commercially exploitable or not subject to environment restrictions, it states.

With the Pacific Ocean find, the question will be whether the mud can be recovered at such extreme depths and if it will be commerically viable to do so.