Unless you’re a student of Japanese geography, you’ve probably never heard of Minamitorishima Island. And there’s a good reason for that. The tiny island is just over half a mile square, and although it’s technically a part of Tokyo, it’s more than a thousand miles away from the capital in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, a recent discovery at the island could well bring it wider notoriety. Why? Because the find’s impact could be so huge it might just change the world economy.
No one lives on the island of Minamitorishima, whose name means “Southern Bird” in Japanese. But the island plays an important role for Japan. You see, because it’s part of the country, it allows the Japanese to control a huge swathe of the ocean that surrounds it. And after the recent discovery close to the island, that could well turn out to be a very lucrative area of the ocean to be in charge of.
However, it’s not the ocean itself where the discovery was made, but somewhere much deeper. On the sea bed around the island, researchers were searching for what are known as rare-earth metals. And in the mud around Minamitorishima they came upon what can only be described as a treasure trove. But what are rare-earth metals?
Well, if you’re reading this on a smartphone then you’re holding some rare-earth elements in your hand right now. In fact, almost all of the high-tech instruments we use contain some of the metals. From missile guidance systems to the increasingly popular hybrid cars, there’s been increasing demand over the past few years for more and more of these difficult-to-find elements.
At the moment, around 95% of all of the rare-earth metals in the world are controlled by China. And in 2009 the Chinese restricted how much of them they would sell to the Japanese. That led to the search for deposits in the seabed around Japan – and the resulting discovery, which is likely to keep the world supplied with the elements for hundreds of years.
The history of rare-earth minerals begins in the late 18th century in a small village in Sweden. The village was known as Ytterby, and it went on to give names to four of the rare-earth elements that were discovered there. And here’s the twist. Although their name suggests otherwise, these metals are actually pretty common in the crust that makes up the top layer of our planet.
You’ll actually find more of one of the elements, Cerium, in the Earth’s crust than you will copper. But the problem isn’t the amount of rare-earth elements that exist, it’s finding them in sufficient quantities to make extracting them worthwhile. And it’s that issue that has led to China’s near-monopoly on the elements in recent years.
In the first half of the last century, most of the production of these important materials was centered in India and Brazil. Over time, other deposits were found, with mines springing up as far afield as South Africa and California. While some of these mines are still active, it’s China that now dominates the world’s supply of rare-earth elements thanks to some vast deposits in Inner Mongolia.
Indeed, over 80% of all of the supplies of rare-earth elements now come from China. Its nearest competitor in terms of volume is Australia, which mines just 15%. Meanwhile, high demand and a low supply of the elements have fueled massive price rises, and more are likely in the future. That’s meant other countries have been looking into finding their own deposits.
And it’s not just actual deposits that other countries are looking for. Plans are afoot for refining minerals and potentially using nuclear waste products to create them as well. However, the discovery of rare-earth metals on the Japanese seabed is possibly the most important in recent years. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
It’s only in recent times that mining these expensive elements from the seabed has become an economic possibility. The technology has been rather slow to catch up with demand, and up until now the amount of valuable metal that could be drawn out from the earth was somewhat insignificant. This meant the cost of a deep-sea mining expedition was often difficult to justify.
But a discovery of this size is monumental for the industry – and for modern technology in general. A report by the US Geological Survey, reported by CNN, explained that the elements have “much less tendency to become concentrated in exploitable ore deposits,” which has led one economist, quoted by CNN again, to claim that the Japanese find could be “a game changer.”
And if the scientists who discovered the deposit are right, it really could provoke a momentous shift in action. Within 16 million tons of deposits thought to be in the vicinity of the island, there could be nearly 800 years’ worth of yttrium, over 600 years’ of europium and more than 400 years’ of terbium, to name just three. And as the pace of technological development increases, these elements are likely to be more important than ever.
That’s because, according to the USGS report again, if a global shortage of the elements occurred, it “would force significant changes in many technological aspects of American society.” All that means that Japan could well be sitting on the modern equivalent of a gold mine. But what are the problems faced by companies that want to try and exploit the new discovery?
Speaking to CNN, Tom Crafford from the USGS went into more detail about the difficulties mining this new deposit might present. “The water gaps here are on the order of five or six kilometers, in the range of 16,000 to 20,000 feet. That’s pretty severe. You’d really require some very sophisticated technology to operate at these kinds of depths,” explained Crafford, who works as USGS’ mineral resources program coordinator.
That’s not to say there won’t be massive enthusiasm in exploiting the find, though. “There is a lot of international interest in seafloor mining, but there has not been any commercialization of it yet, and one day it could very well turn out to be a source of some of these critical minerals,” said Crafford. “But how far in the future is anyone’s guess.”
There are, of course, other factors to take into consideration when mining the seafloor. Perhaps the most important of those is the impact such actions might have on the delicate ecosystems at the bottom of our oceans. For Crafford, that’s likely to be one of the biggest sticking blocks for any potential excavation of the Japanese find.
After all, it’s fair to say that there’s a distinct lack of knowledge about life on the seafloor. According to The Independent, a number of environmental groups have raised concerns about the effect deep-sea mining could have on these unexplored and potentially vital pockets of life.
But, if the scientists who made the Japanese discovery are right, there could be enough rare-earth elements in the mud around Minamitorishima Island to sustain our need for them for a “semi-infinite” length of time. There are hundreds of years’ worth of deposits down there, and if technology continues at the same pace, it’s unlikely that environmental concerns will be enough to dissuade companies from exploiting the find.
A group of Japanese businesses and government agencies will now spend the next few years figuring out how viable extracting the minerals is likely to be. All of which could well turn Minamitorishima Island, and the sea around it, into one of the most vital locations for the future of the world. Not bad for a small triangle of land in the middle of the ocean.