Rare earth materials are an essential part of modern electronics, including our favorite tablets and smartphones. The trouble has been that for about the last two decades, China has held the vast majority of these materials, which has led to high costs. But, Japan has now found large deposits of rare earth materials in the ocean, and may use this new find to bring down costs.
The find was made by professor Yasuhiro Kato and his team from Tokyo University in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone around the island of Minami-Torishima. The materials were found in deep-sea mud at 5,700 meters below sea level; and despite the depth, the deposits can be extracted fairly easily using pressurized air. Professor Kato said a single ship drilling in the zone could supply Japan's needs for a year, and break strategic dependence on China. "We don't need to mine it intensively. All we need is enough to force China to lower its prices."
This is especially important because while other countries like the US and Australia have been increasing production of the seventeen rare earth elements, China still controls the heavier metals such as dysprosium, terbium, europium, and ytterbium. Making the situation worse, China began to restrict exports in 2009, and forced companies to build factories in China.
In addition to mobile electronics, these rare earth materials are used in electronics including car parts, TVs, lasers, low-energy lightbulbs, and various military equipment and weapons.