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back to article Japan's rare earth discovery bad news for China's monopoly plans

Japan is celebrating the find of an “astronomically” high level of rare earth deposits at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, a discovery which will further undermine China’s failing attempts to control the global supply of the substances. The deposits, a vital component in the production of a range of high technology equipment …

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Megaphone

China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

Rare earths are unfortunately named: they aren't rare. The only reason China currently has a "monopoly" on world production is that mines in other countries have all shut down due to difficulty complying with environmental regulations. The standard rare earth mineral extraction process is quite polluting.

In effect, all other countries have exported their pollution to a willing China in exchange for extracted rare earth minerals. Thus, the "worst" China can do in this trade war is to cause other countries to relax their environmental regulations, whereupon those countries' domestic rare earths reserves will come back online.

Not exactly the "high tech device apocalypse" as the media prefers to portray it.

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MrT
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Recycling...

... of neodymium and samarium has been in the news a lot in the past few months - the market value of these minerals governs how economic methods like separating them from iron (for example) using ionic water become. Even if these methods get close, the political benefit of decoupling from monopololistic suppliers carries weight.

However, if the Japanese are willing to collect stuff from miles underwater, it suggests that the recycling tech isn't quite in the ballpark yet - but it'll get there.

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Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

"Rare earths are unfortunately named: they aren't rare"

But they tend not to be concentrated in nice, easy to mine seams

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Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

"....mines in other countries have all shut down due to difficulty complying with environmental regulations."

Which normally wouldn't be a problem, it just adds to cost. The killer here was that China glutted the market, forcing prices down and driving everyone else out of business. Then, once they had the monopoly, they put in the export restrictions.

The Chinese deposits are rather "dirtier" than most, due to the high Thorium content.

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Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

But they tend not to be concentrated in nice, easy to mine seams

They're also chemically bonded to other materials, which is where the pollution originates. After mining, the minerals have to go through a chemical process that is expensive in terms of equipment, energy and pollution to be freed. The titanium vats alone cost millions..

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Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

Given the importance they will place on a supply independant from China the pollution should be less of an issue. They will likely just find another country nearby (in shipping terms) that would trade the jobs and infrastructure investment for turning a blind eye to the pollution. Not really ethical but I could see this being what happens.

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Thumb Down

Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

"The killer here was that China glutted the market, forcing prices down and driving everyone else out of business. Then, once they had the monopoly, they put in the export restrictions."

THIS is actually what is happening across the entire manufacturing economy. China is weaning us off our own manufacturing and decimating our capability and capacity by providing unrealistically cheap products that consumers cannot refuse. However, in the next 10 years, I predict that the relative price of everything produced in China will increase between two- and fourfold - think about it, why WOULDN'T they increase their prices when they are operating a near monopoly on worldwide manufacturing? Then we'll be screwed. And we're letting it happen, right under our noses!

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Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

Lighter REE are more common than the heavy ones such as dysprosium, terbium, europium, and ytterbium. Many of the reserves being brought online in the last couple of years have not added much to the supply of the heavy REE whilst reducing China's grip on the light elements.

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FAIL

Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

@dbhh. Thats a little arlarmist. Most likely we will see what has happened in RE's apply across a whole range of China made products. Whereas the cycle of glabal demand and supply in a previous centuries was generations or hundreds of years - the world is now so interconnected its down to 5's of years.

And those timescales are not long enough for the previous knowledge and infrastructure held in the source economies atrophy to any great exent.

Eventually things will stabilise into a stable-ish cycle of supply and demand - just on a global scale.

Think - how many offshoring operations are on their 3rd or 4th cycle of moving? You can see it as a race to the bottom - the alternative way of looking at it is a necessary step towards Global demand and supply equilibruim.

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Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

So, what are the heavy ones used in, other than small amounts for doping lasers and some very rare metallic glasses?

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Re: China only has a monopoly on willingness to pollute

"THIS is actually what is happening across the entire manufacturing economy. China is weaning us off our own manufacturing and decimating our capability and capacity by providing unrealistically cheap products that consumers cannot refuse."

Blather. It's what was said about Japanese products, South Korean products, Taiwanese products, etc.

Their labor is cheaper than dirt, at first, then over time, the labor prices increase to closer to western standards and their advantage eases.

When I was a child, Made in Japan was a warning sticker. Then, Made in Korea and Made in Taiwan. Today, it's Made in China. As each nation learns quality control, the prices increment up. Over time, skilled labor prices increase as the standard of living increases. It's human nature.

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All hinges on the cost of extraction.

5.8Km is a long way down. Pressure at this depth is about 580 Atm.

Of course if the concentration <bis</b> great enough. ...

thumbs up for an interesting discovery.

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Meh

Re: All hinges on the cost of extraction.

Could use a similar system to the South African sea diamond mining, a really really really long vacuum cleaner extention to suck it up. Though this is a little deeper.....

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Happy

Re: All hinges on the cost of extraction.

That's exactly it. It's reported elsewhere that, while the stuff's a long way down under the water, the deposits are a mere few metres below the sea bed, so a compressed air lift is all that's required to extract them.

Bonus #1: The deposits are ridiculously high in the heavier end of the rare earth pantheon, which is where China's held all the cards until now.

Bonus #2: There does not appear to be the high Thorium content that characterises the Chinese deposits, making them far easier to refine as they won't have to worry about the whole lot being radioactive, like the Chinese mines are.

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Go

India are already researching "flexible riser" tech that will work at 6km. they have remote controlled mining machines on the seabed that slurp the material and send it skyward to a platform. A british tech company is also looking at harvesting vents in the deep sea too. It will happen if the need is great enough.

I suppose we should thank china for stimulating tech advances.

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"India are already researching "flexible riser" tech that will work at 6km. they have remote controlled mining machines on the seabed that slurp the material and send it skyward to a platform."

I did not know this.

I had thought this sort of deep vacuum cleaner tech was pretty esoteric with no one really looking at it due to the lack of demand.

Sounds like I was wrong.

Excellent news.

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er

could crucially give Tokyo the tactical upper hand over China in the on-going cat-and-mouse game between the two over supplies.

This makes for snappier copy but is simplistic and wrong. The market is global and has already reacted with Mongolia positioning itself as the new supplier with projects like "Oyu Tolgoi" dwarfing anything coming out of China. Ultimately the price and the environmental standards are dictated by what consumers like us are prepared to pay for our next piece of shiny, shiny.

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Thumb Up

Having a Flashback...

This story reminded me of one of the random events in Masters of Orion 2, when the Galactic News Network reported that one of the Empires had suddenly found a rich Mineral seam. Fingers crossed the Japanese find enough (relatively) easily mined elements, they could use a break.

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astronomically high level of rare earth minerals

55 light years of neodymium

17 parsecs of lanthanum

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Pint

Re: astronomically high level of rare earth minerals

Thems are tall piles, for sure!

<-- The tallest icon I could find.

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Re: astronomically high level of rare earth minerals

This is no help. Can you tell me how it relates to Wales instead?

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Coat

Re: astronomically high level of rare earth minerals

I was thinking along similar lines: so, the deposits are ~75% hydrogen, ~25% helium, with just traces of everything else?

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Anonymous Coward

"let demand pick-up"

pick-up is an adjective not a verb. You let demand pick up. You have a pick-up truck.

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Not me... I have a ute.

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Coat

>Not me... I have a ute.

You're Mongolian?

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Re: >Not me... I have a ute.

No, he's from the Bronx, and talking about his teen-age kid.

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Thumb Up

Thumbs up for the ute...

Must be a fellow Aussie.

One little thing that always bugs me... Pick-up "trucks" aren't trucks. Stop calling them trucks, damnit. They're just a type of slightly larger car.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Thumbs up for the ute...

Coming into British slang as well - my beaut ute.

Must be the Aussie influence, though it's still no holds barred for the Ashes.

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Anonymous Coward

Interesting poker game

The Japanese "discovery" will of course need full and independent peer review before China is likely to drop prices to prevent deep undersea mining investment being "profitable". Otherwise Japan is claiming to have certain cards but is not yet showing them - it's an old game which has been played for as long as I can remember in the international oil market where "proven reserves" come and go as these numbers suit the players. Much of the discussion of oil and mineral reserves seems to represent this kind of political game. Don't be fooled, those with the most genuine knowledge in the global resources game keep their hands firmly to their chests.

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Anonymous Coward

So how long before

China declares Minami Torishima island Chinese territory?

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Devil

I'm willing to bet that a fleet of "fishing" junks is already on its way.

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Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare Earth Hi-Tech Company

Back in the days when I was at school, this is what I would have called our band (or our first album maybe).

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Re: Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare Earth Hi-Tech Company

"Back in the days when I was at school, ["Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare Earth Hi-Tech Company"] is what I would have called our band"

Yeah, but I'm willing to bet the record company would have forced you to shorten it to "Hi-Tech" to get a deal anyway. :-(

That's assuming they didn't force you to ditch it altogether and give you a bland, marketing exec chosen name like "The Noise". :-6

Mind you, this isn't always as bad as I made it sound- who would disagree that the band "Seymour" were done a favour by having to change their name to "Blur"?

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Theres also the possibility of getting valuable uranium from sea water too... lots of heavy elements down in the bowels....

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Anonymous Coward

"Lots of heavy elements down in the bowels...."

Yeah, but they have a half life of "I'd give that five minutes".

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Anonymous Coward

"lots of heavy elements down in the bowels...."

Nothing that a colonoscopy or better yet, a vindaloo, can't fix.

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China is a problem

China is a problem all around. We should just nuke them.

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Re: China is a problem

If past experience in the region is any guide - it will certainly increase the quality of their cars, video games, cameras, portable hifi, and tentacle based porn.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: China is a problem

That's right; what with all their invading of other countries, sabre rattling, dubious electoral process, capital punishment etc.

On the other hand, at least they can pay their bills.

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Devil

Re: China is a problem

"what with all their invading of other countries, sabre rattling, dubious electoral process, capital punishment etc."

- why bring America into this?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: China is a problem

<irony>Well spotted</irony>

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Capitalism and Free Enterprise

This is how capitalism and free enterprise works. If you think you have a monopoly and drive prices up thinking you are safe, someone will spend their own money to prove you wrong.

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Flame

Chinese mineral resources aren't the issue

Chinese work conditions and worker's rights are the 400 pound gorilla here. If Western workers have to compete against slaves Chinese workers, there is only one possible outcome. And don't forget that in most of the West, workers -taken as a group- are the biggest taxpayers and the biggest consumers. You must LOVE Globalization!.

In brief: we are screwed.

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Re: Chinese mineral resources aren't the issue

Western workers don't have to compete against the Chinese.

Western customers just need to persuade Mongolian or Somali or some other TPLAC to lower their standards below China, or wait for China's to rise.

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Tim Worstall wrote a much better article on the discovery two years ago, wherein he basically trashes the whole stupid idea of dredging mud from the bottom of the ocean for a few tenths of a % of rare earths. The author of this article would have done well to read it, as he seems to have succumbed to the hype.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/07/04/japan_discovers_rare_earths_under_pacific/

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I read that as a generic discussion - it might not apply, as there are far higher concentrations of metal here. In fact, there is a firm (around Indonesia?) that is actually attempting to get mining started, but is still negotiating the politics.

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How big is that vessel?

"The fact is this discovery could help supply Japan with 60 per cent of its annual needs merely with the contents of a single vessel."

They failed to mention the vessel was 1/3 the size of Earth.

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Well, Japan most certainly has cornered the market on cesium-137. Though, any investment in that rare Earth metal would decrease by 50% in 30.17 years...

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all that chinese thorium

Isn't such a "pollutant" as an unused resource. There's a reason they're looking at thorium for energy.

WRT labour costs - as soon as it gets high enough that automation is a viable alternative, you can move manufacturing/assembly anywhere on the planet.

Robots cost the same everywhere, plus or minus energy costs. They don't strike, don't need shift breaks and they don't need accomodation blocks. There are other issues (such as having paying customers to buy the products) which were raised 40 years ago by Alvin Toffler et al, but societies have proven remarkably resiliant to changes over the last few decades and will be in future once economists get weaned off the idea that growth (economic and population) must be endless.

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