11/04/2018 16:33 SAST | Updated 11/04/2018 16:33 SAST

Japanese Research Maps Vast Reserves Of Valuable Elements In Deep-Sea Mud

A report says there are hundreds of years' worth of reserves of most of the coveted rare earth elements in the area surveyed.

Joan Cros Garcia - Corbis via Getty Images

Japanese researchers have identified and mapped enormous reserves of rare earth elements in deep-sea mud, enough to feed global demand on a "semi-infinite basis", according to a fresh study.

The deposits, found within Japan's exclusive economic waters, contain more than 16-million tons of the elements needed to build high-tech products, from mobile phones to electric vehicles, according to a study that was released on Tuesday in the journal "Scientific Reports".

The team, comprising staff from several universities, businesses and government institutions, surveyed the western Pacific Ocean near Japan's Minamitorishima Island.

In a sample area of the mineral-rich region, the team's survey estimated 1.2-million tons of "rare earth oxides" had been deposited, said the study, conducted jointly by Yutaro Takaya, researcher with Waseda University, and Yasuhiro Kato of the University of Tokyo, among others.

The finding extrapolates that a 2,500-square kilometre region off the southern Japanese island should contain 16-million tons of the valuable elements, and "has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world", the study concluded.

The area reserves offer "great potential as ore deposits for some of the most critically important elements in modern society", it claimed, estimating hundreds of years of reserves of most of the rare earths in the area surveyed.

The team has also developed an efficient method to separate valuable elements from others in the mud.

The world relies heavily on China for rare earths, and the superpower produces most of the elements currently available on the market.

But Beijing has severely restricted exports of these products at times of diplomatic tension.

In 2010, for example, Japanese manufacturers faced serious supply shortages as China limited the valuable exports.

That came after Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese trawler involved in a run-in with Japanese coastguards near the disputed Senkaku Islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyus.

The Japanese study stressed the importance of the efforts to develop efficient and economic methods to collect the deep-sea mud.

"The enormous resource amount and the effectiveness of the mineral processing are strong indicators that this new [rare earth-rich mud] resource could be exploited in the near future," the study said.