Update on Rare Earth Metals

They aren’t so rare anymore.  

Rare-earth elements (also called metals) are needed for cutting-edge technical applications like rechargeable batteries, LED’s, compact fluorescent lights, and screen displays.  These elements are useful because of their similar, unique properties, and twenty percent of rare earth metals are used in permanent magnets.

As with most raw materials, it is important not just to be able to find the materials, but also to be able to process them for use.  Major rare earth element reserves exist all around the world, but until recently China has had a virtual monopoly on the production of these materials.

Back in 2010, China made major cuts in the export of the 17 rare-earth metals, and prices increased by 10x.  Worried about the price increase, Japan (and other countries) began making major investments in new extraction techniques.

On April 10, 2018, Nature Research released an article titled “The Tremendous Potential of Deep-Sea Mud as a Source of Rare-Earth Elements” published by a group of Japanese scientists and engineers.  The study reveals that there is a higher density of rare-earth elements than people had previously been aware of, and it makes the claim that more than thirty years worth of rare-earth metals can be extracted from this mud.

We can expect to see major Japanese investments in underwater drilling technology as a result of this news.  After the announcement, the stock price of Japan’s largest drilling company (“Japan Drilling”) already increased by 13%.

As with any industry that relies on extracting materials from the earth for human consumption, we can also expect to see new types of environmental disasters.  We can also expect to see new fights forming around access to this natural resource.  Conflict between Japan and China in the South China Sea has been intense in the past few years, and now the countries won’t just be arguing about access to fish.

As conflict increases in some parts of the world, hopefully peace will break out in the areas where superpowers have previously fought over access to these metals.  We can expect the superpower countries to suddenly be slightly less interested in supplying weapons to local warlords in Sudan and the DRC.

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