China’s Deng Xiaoping – pictured when a student in France, nice suit – was once quoted as saying: “The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths”. These rare earth elements have become increasingly important since the days of the late Chinese leader – to the point where scientists say they are now virtually indispensable.
The scarce elements are vital for all kinds of technologies, and especially in the world of IT. International concern has been growing over the monopoly held in this area by China, which produces well over 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, and its tightening of export quotas.
Japan is one of the world’s biggest importers of rare earths and is very keen to reduce its dependency on China. Reports today said Tokyo had come up with a raft of new measures to do just that. According to Nikkei.net, the Japanese government has unveiled a range of ways to help firms secure a stable supply of rare earth metals.
Those listed included helping speed up the development of technology to create alternative materials, such as cerium, used in polishing glass for hard-disk drives. Another measure involved helping domestic companies to acquire concession rights to mines in other parts of the world, including Vietnam and Kazakhstan.
It was also reported by Nikkei.net that the Japanese government was looking to step up co-operation in areas like infrastructure building, personnel training and industrial promotion “to strengthen relationships with resource-rich countries”.
In addition, Education Minister Yoshiaki Takagi wanted to start looking at exploration in the sea off Japan, where rare earths are believed to be abundant.
Paul Strange, professor of physics at the University of Kent, said he understood that Japan was planning to build up a stockpile of rare earth minerals because of recent interruptions and threats to its supply from China and described today’s news as “a very prudent measure for Japan to take”.
Professor Strange told TechEye: “Rare earths are virtually indispensable in the modern world. Rare earth materials include the strongest magnets known and they are found in every car and a huge number of electronic devices, particularly associated with information storage.
“On top of that they are very likely to have applications in new electronics, and in green technologies such as catalytic converters and rechargeable battery materials.
“If Japan is stockpiling them it means they see a future for themselves in these technologies. It will certainly give them an advantage over other countries to have a plentiful supply of these materials.
“Not only will this enable them to become global leaders in a number of fields, but many countries who don’t have direct access to these materials will be unable to compete in these markets and so may become dependent on Japan.
“This is likely to extend Japan’s political influence in the long term as well as boost its economy.”
According to Professor Strange, who is part of a research group at the university looking at the fundamental properties of rare earths with a view to suggesting “exciting and novel” applications of them, the main rare earths for the IT sector include Gadolinium and Neodymium. Gadolinium is used for making compact discs and computer memory while Neodymium is a component of computer hard drives.
Professor Strange added: “I am sure that the demand for, and price of, rare earths is going to rise and so this is likely to become an increasingly profitable business. With this in mind I would certainly recommend that countries with such deposits build up their extraction facilities as soon as they can.
“The UK can’t do anything directly as we don’t have any rare earth deposits in our territory.
“The best we could do would be for a British company to go into partnership with an Australian or American one to accelerate extraction of their deposits.”