Rare earth minerals may not be so rare

A vast expanse of toxic waste fills the tailings dam, which nearby farmers blame on China's largest producer of rare earth minerals.

ADRIENE HILL: Rare earth minerals are used to make all sorts of electronics. And, they've been -- as their name suggests -- tough to come by. But now, Japanese researchers mining the depths of the Pacific Ocean say they have discovered vast deposits of the key materials.

At present, China produces 97 percent of the
world's rare earth metals.

From Sydney, the BBC's Phil Mercer reports that
China's near-monopoly could change.


PHIL MERCER: Rare earths are the essential ingredients that make laptops and TVs smaller, faster and more efficient. So many of these devices are being produced, demand for them currently outstrips supply.

Until now. That's been good for China because it's been able to capitalize on its dominance as the world's major supplier of earth metals.

Carl Spandler, a geologist at Australia's James Cook University, says the discovery near Hawaii is a big deal.

CARL SPANDLER: At the moment most of our rare earths come from the land. This deposit is very significant in that it indicates they are much more widespread
than we thought in the past.

Other reserves of these rare metals are at present currently found in far smaller quantities in Russia and United States. However, extracting these new discoveries from deep water in the Pacific won't be easy or cheap.

Then there's the question of ownership. Just because the Japanese scientists found these rich deposits in international waters it doesn't mean they own them. And it's already been reported that Australia, Japan and Tahiti are interested.

In Sydney, I'm the BBC's Phil Mercer for Marketplace.

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