i3 - July/August 2018 - 14

BY GARY ARLEN

PAY DIRT
Rare earth elements found
in Pacific mud could
provide 'semi-infinite' supply
for electronics makers

hen you took chemistry in high school, your instructor probably
skipped over those two rows of the periodic table of elements that
dangle down from the bottom of the chart. Little did your teacher or you
know that those lanthanoid metals and actinoid chemicals, also known as
"rare earth elements" (REE), would become crucial building blocks for
LEDs, digital TV screens, cameras, wireless phones, guitar pickups,
rechargeable batteries, renewable energy products, fuel cells and autonomous vehicles, as well as medical imaging and military devices.
And the looming boom of the Internet of Things is expected to further
increase the demand for REEs needed for uninvented devices.
REEs, sometimes called rare earth metals (REM), burst into the headlines
early this year when a new cache of yttrium, terbium, dysprosium and other
elements - enough to last 400 to 800 years - was discovered below a muddy
island off the coast of Japan. The new bonanza could cause Japan to surpass
China, which has been the world's leading supplier of REEs for the past 20 years.
New supply sources, such as the Japanese lode, are also important
because there is no known substitute for REEs in many devices. The
Japanese scientists who published their research in the scientific journal
Scientific Reports this spring described the cornucopia of metals in the
deep sea mud near Minamitori Island (also called Minamitorishima or
Marcus Island) as "monumental" and "semi-infinite." Initial estimates
tally up to 16 million tons of the REEs in the island's mud.
One Japanese scholar called them "critical for future generations of technology" and emphasized that the search for new sources was vital "to maintain Japan's technological edge." This is especially important after China
restricted its rare earth export quotas in 2009, which triggered prices for
some REEs to jump tenfold. Thus, China abandoned its quotas after complaints to the World Trade Organization. Nonetheless, it was China's actions
that prompted Japan's search for alternative sources.
Starting in early 2013, a Japanese deep sea research vessel identified
potential REE deposits in mud layers 6 to 12 feet beneath the seabed (which

W

14

JULY/AUGUST 2018

Yttrium is a soft, silvermetallic, lustrous and
highly crystalline transition
metal in group 3.
I T I S I N N O VAT I O N



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of i3 - July/August 2018

Contents
i3 - July/August 2018 - Cover1
i3 - July/August 2018 - Cover2
i3 - July/August 2018 - Contents
i3 - July/August 2018 - 2
i3 - July/August 2018 - 3
i3 - July/August 2018 - 4
i3 - July/August 2018 - 5
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i3 - July/August 2018 - 7
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i3 - July/August 2018 - Cover3
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