This story is over 5 years old
tech

How Deep-Sea Mud Found Off a Tiny Japanese Island May Change the Gadget Economy

China pretty much dominates the world market for rare earth elements, but a huge find underneath Japan's seas may now help break that stranglehold.

by VICE Staff
Mar 29 2013, 8:21pm

Tiny Minami-Torishima Island, which is key to Japan finding rare earth metals within its own waters. Via Wikipedia

Inside of all the world's gadgets—all of our technology in general, really—is a melange of rare earth elements, which aren't as hard to find as their name suggests, but which are hard to mine efficiently. Currently China pretty much dominates the world market for the crucial elements, but a huge find underneath Japan's seas may now help break that stranglehold.

China wasn't always dominant in the rare-earth game. Other countries, including the US and war-torn Congo, have and still mine for the metals. But over the years, China used its massive domestic supply to outprice operations around the world, which eventually disappeared. Then, in 2010, China began restricting supply, which caused an uproar from the EU, US, and Japan, who all complained to the World Trade Organization.

That served as a huge wake-up call: everyone from the US military to the Japanese auto industry realized that they needed to find new sources for the 14 commonly used rare earth elements. Japan is especially at risk, as the country's economy is the source of about half the world's demand for the metals—dysprosium, for example, is used in smart-phone screens and in rare-earth magnets in hybrid car motors. 

But now Japanese geologists have found a cache of rare-earth metals buried in high concentrations in sea mud off the coast of Minami-Torishima Island, which itself lies far to the east of Japan's main islands. But that tiny island, which happens to be of huge strategic importance, now stands to reshape the whole gadget economy. 

Read the rest over at the new Motherboard.VICE.com.