A discovery in 2013, about 1,200 km (790 miles) off the coast of Japan could change the rare earths sector forever.
The researchers discovered a deposit of deep-sea mud containing more than 5,000 ppm total rare-earth elements and yttrium content in the western North Pacific Ocean near Minamitorishima Island, Japan.
The Researchers published a study in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports that says the deposit is home to an estimated 14.5 Mt (16 million st) of rare earth minerals.
“This REY-rich mud has great potential as a rare-earth metal resource because of the enormous amount available and its advantageous mineralogical features,” the report said.
One economist asked about the discovery told the Wall Street Journal that the find is a “game changer.”
The study, published on April 17, said the island could contain 780 years worth of yttrium, 620 years worth of europium, 420 years worth of terbium and 730 years worth of dysprosium. In other words, according to the paper, it "has the potential to supply these materials on a semi-infinite basis to the world."
The rare earths sector has been largely controlled by China which holds much of the world’s known deposits. The rare earth elements have gained importance in the past decade because of their use in high-tech devices such as smart phones and electric vehicles as well as military applications such as missile guidance systems and radar devices.
According to the US Geological Survey, while the minerals are relatively abundant, they have "much less tendency to become concentrated in exploitable ore deposits," making a find of this scale even more important.
"Most of the world's supply of (rare earth elements) comes from only a handful of sources," a USGS report said, adding the long-term shortage or unavailability of the substances "would force significant changes in many technological aspects of American society."
The materials sit in a roughly 2,500-km2 (965-sq-mile) Pacific Ocean seabed near Minamitorishima Island, which is located 1,850 km (1,150 miles) southeast of Tokyo, according to the study.
The discovery of the deposits could pit Japan against China to become the world's largest producer of the materials, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Japan started seeking its own rare-earth metals after China held back shipments in 2010 during a dispute over islands both countries claim. As a major electronics manufacturer, Japan needs rare earths for components.
Separately, China held back exports of certain types of rare earths starting 2010, which caused prices to jump by as much as 10 times — further pushing Japan to seek other sources, according to the Journal.
Extracting those metals from the seabed, however, is an expensive affair, the Journal reported. A consortium of Japanese government-backed entities, companies and researchers plans to conduct a feasibility test within the next five years, according to the Journal.
Japan has complete economic control over the new supply, and the study said all indications are the new resource "could be exploited in the near future."