Accessibility links

Rare Earths Sources Court Japan

As Japanese industries reel from Chinese export restrictions on rare earth metals, alternative sources are moving in to fill the gap.

In 2005, Japanese industries asked Yasushi Watanabe, a geologist at the Geological Survey of Japan, to find new sources of rare earths - metals that are used in products from computer hard disk drives to hybrid car batteries.

China for years has supplied most of Japan's rare earths. Watanabe's job has been to help assess the quality of deposits and the viability of mining them in countries outside China. In recent years, the Japanese government and large Japanese companies have entered joint ventures to explore for and mine these metals all over the world - in Vietnam, India, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Australia and the United States.

Still, when China curbed rare earths exports to Japan in September following a territorial dispute, Japanese industries had to scramble.

"It was a big mistake. Last year, due to the economic depression Japanese companies didn't buy enough amounts of rare earths from China. In future, we will not repeat such failure again," Watanabe said.

At a rare earth conference this week in Hong Kong, organized by Metal Events and Roskill Information Services, miners from Greenland, Australia, the U.S., South Africa, Turkey and other nations reached out to the Japanese.

Japan's high-tech industries need about 30,000 tons of the metals this year, and the need is expected to grow in the next two years, partly because of the demand for hybrid cars.

Ahmet Arda, managing director of AMR Resources, says his company has accelerated the production of rare earths in southern Turkey to take advantage of the shortage.

"It's a reality everybody wakes up to. We wanted to bring that production forward and we are looking for strategic partners, somebody who is interested in rare earths," Arda states, "This can be Honda, Mitsubishi, Siemens, Bosch."

Watanabe, who is also a group leader at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, says Japan is developing technology to improve recycling of some rare earths from discarded electronic products. And it is seeking substitutes for rare earth components.

He says in two years Japan will find its own steady supply of rare earths.

"I think this year and next year would be very hard for Japan, but from 2012, this will change because we have our own supply sources and two major deposits Mountain Pass and Mount Weld in the U.S. and Australia will start producing rare earths. Now stable supply is more important than the price. Even if the price is somewhat higher than Chinese products, probably Japanese companies would buy from those mines outside China," Watanabe said.

Rare earth minerals are difficult and expensive to mine. And like most mining activities, doing so results in environmental damage, particularly because the ores from which these metals are extracted can be radioactive. Chinese mines have produced rare earths at a much lower cost, forcing competitors to shut down in recent years and creating a near monopoly.

Germany and the United States are among the countries that have expressed concern about China's decision to cut rare earth exports. Both countries have industries that need the minerals.

The rare earths issue may figure in the strategic agenda for the leaders of Japan and the United States in their summit later this week on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama, Japan.

China denies it is using rare earths as a diplomatic leverage against Japan and defended its export controls as a step toward more sustainable mining and protecting its environment.