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Not so rare earths

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Kai Ryssdal: Try with me for a second to think of a product, besides Netflix, that epitomizes the march of technological progress. There’re hybrid cars, wind turbines, smartphones. Flatscreen televisions as well. All of which depend in critical measure on a group of metals called rare earth minerals. As it happens, 95 percent of all the world’s rare earths come from just one place: China. Beijing’s been cutting back exports over the past year, so prices have jumped.

But two developments today have the potential to make rare earth metals a lot less rare. Marketplace’s Jeff Horwich reports.

Jeff Horwich: Thanks in part to their amazing magnetic properties, the future belongs — to an uncomfortable degree — to rare earth metals. No one get this more than the Japanese, who not only consume a lot of high-tech stuff, they make a lot of it. So not surprisingly it’s a group of Japanese scientists who’ve discovered a motherlode of rare earth metals that is not in China. It is conveniently located — at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Mike Stares: Twenty thousand feet. That’s a long way down.

Mike Stares runs Rare Earth Metals Inc., which explores for rare earth deposits on land in Canada. According to the Japanese, just one square mile of one of the discovered deposits could meet half the world’s annual demand. Stares says that’s very promising — except for that ocean-floor part.

Stares: That’s like finding a deposit in the middle of nowhere, with no infrastructure and trying to get this thing out. You’re going to be disrupting the ocean bed as well — you can’t just run out there and mine this stuff.

Rod Eggert at the Colorado School of Mines says companies have just recently begun mining underwater, and no one has attempted to mine at these depths.

Rod Eggert: Much of what’s been announced both under the sea and on land represents potential, rather than any rare earth that’s going to be produced any time soon.

Eggert says mining in international waters is also a murky area of international law. Things are a little more clear at the World Trade Organization, which today offered another kind of possible relief for rare earth consumers. The WTO ruled that China is violating free trade rules by restricting exports of some raw materials — exactly what it’s accused of doing with rare earth metals.

I’m Jeff Horwich for Marketplace.

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