China's monopoly on rare earth metals faces challenge | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 04, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 04, 2011

China's monopoly on rare earth metals faces challenge

Survey finds "21st-century gold” on the Pacific floor

China's monopoly over rare-earth metals could be challenged by the discovery of massive deposits of these hi-tech minerals in mud on the Pacific floor, a study on yesterday suggests.
China accounts for 97 percent of the world's production of 17 rare-earth elements, which are essential for electric cars, flat-screen TVs, iPods, superconducting magnets, lasers, missiles, night-vision goggles, wind turbines and many other advanced products.
These elements carry exotic names such as neodymium, promethium and yttrium but in spite of their "rare-earth" tag are in fact abundant in the planet's crust.
Considering the difficulty of obtaining these metals, the 17 elements have sometimes been dubbed "21st-century gold" for their rarity and value.
Production of them is almost entirely centred on China, which also has a third of the world's reserves. Another third is held together by former Soviet republics, the United States and Australia.
But a new study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, points to an extraordinary concentration of rare-earth elements in thick mud at great depths on the Pacific floor.
Japanese geologists studied samples from 78 sites covering a major portion of the centre-eastern Pacific between 120 and 180 degrees longitude.
The material had taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate, depositing at the rate of less than half a centimetre (0.2 of an inch) per thousand years.
But question is whether the technology exists for recovering the mud at such great depths -- 4,000 to 5,000 metres -- and, if so, whether this would be commercially viable.
The market for rare-earth elements has tightened considerably over the last couple of years.
China has slashed export quotas, consolidated the industry and announced plans to build national reserves, citing environmental concerns and domestic demand.
These moves led to a fall of 9.3 percent in China's exports of rare-earth metals last year, triggering complaints abroad of strategic hoarding and price-gouging.

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