Rare earth elements have been the focus of a good deal of ink, a lot of anxiety, and a couple of tense international spats over the past year, but a Japanese discovery may make the valuable minerals a lot less rare. Geologists there say they’ve found huge concentrated deposits of rare earths in the Pacific seabed that could total 100 billion tons--or enough in a single square mile of seafloor to cover nearly half the world’s annual demand.
Rare earths--in case you missed last year’s high-tech sector fears and China’s short-lived unofficial “embargo” that rattled some Japanese and Western industries--are a group of metals that are integral to several cutting-edge technologies, including batteries, green technologies like wind turbines, and next-gen military technologies. They’re also used in lots of everyday technologies that are vital to developed economies, things like smartphones and computer monitors.In short, the world needs rare earths and as developing economies continue their rapid upward climbs the world will need even more of them. Currently China controls 97 percent of the world’s usable supplies, and that’s been a source of tension as Chinese leaders have scaled back exports to protect industries at home. So the idea that there are perhaps hundreds of billions of tons of untapped rare earths lying in international waters is huge.