In our modern world, electronics have become taken for granted in both the civilian and military worlds. Many people would even have trouble coping without them. They are seen everywhere, and people of all ages have smartphones and other electronic devices. All electronics are dependent on rare-earth elements to make them work. China is currently the world’s largest supplier, providing about 80% of the world’s supply to nations willing to pay their price. During the 1980s, China controlled as much as 97% of the market share.
At times, China has been restrictive of its terms and prices, even limiting supplies of the precious metals to some nations – such as Japan – in 2010. Because it provides most of the supply, it has also been able to charge the prices it wants. Tired of meeting China’s prices and limits, Japan and the United States, as well as Australia, are seeking to discover new sources of the metals so necessary for everything we do today – including our national security.
There are 17 different rare earth elements. They include elements such as neodymium, ytterbium, erbium, europium, dysprosium, and more. They are necessary to make our modern devices work, including cellphones, computers, powerful magnets, motors in electric cars, lasers, jet engines, satellites, our defense systems, and much more.
Because of recent conflicts with China, other countries are fearful that China could cut off the supply of rare earth elements. China did just that in 2010 to Japan. If that happened today, it could completely cripple the United States, Japan, and other modern countries. Japan, the U.S., and other modern countries want to become independent of China for these elements. Up until 2017, China had supplied the U.S. with 80 percent (and more) of these elements.
In 2019, Japan used an autonomous underwater drone made in the U.S. to use ultrasound to locate possible locations of rare earth elements. The drone was sent to search at a depth of 6,000 meters. They were especially interested in the area near an island called Minami-Torishima, which is about 1,120 miles SE of Japan.
After bringing up mud samples from the area by vacuuming it up through a pipe, Japan believes that there is a super-abundance of the rare earth elements near that island. The minerals that were discovered there are believed to be in large enough quantities to supply the world’s demand for several centuries. Just as important is that this island lies within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, giving them all rights to the materials there.
As both the United States and Japan seek other sources of these rare elements, China started to lower its prices so that new companies mining these elements could not compete. The largest source in the U.S. was the Mountain Pass mine in California that closed in 2002 on account of new mining regulations. A new corporation was formed by investors – MP Materials – and the mine was reopened in 2017.
While Japan owns the island where the elements are located, it is not going to be easy or cheap to obtain them. They lie in the mud under the sea at a depth greater than 6,000 meters, or 3.7 miles. Once the best and least expensive method for obtaining the rare earth elements from the sea bottom has been determined, Japan will likely become the largest supplier of these elements.
The United States has also made further agreements with other countries to ensure that the country is no longer dependent on China. With the U.S. currently having some conflicts with China, the need to find and develop other sources is extremely important. Agreements to find more sources of rare earth elements have also been made with Australia and Canada.