The VICE Channels

    How Deep Sea Mud Found off a Tiny Japanese Island May Change the Gadget Economy

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Tiny Minami-Torishima Island, which is key to Japan finding rare earth metals within its own waters. Via Wikipedia

    Inside of all the world's gadgets–all of our technology in general, really–is a melange of rare earth elements, which aren't as hard to find as their name suggests, but which are hard to mine efficiently. Currently, China pretty much dominates the world market for the crucial elements, but a huge find underneath Japan's seas may now help break that stranglehold.

    China wasn't always dominant in the rare earth game. Other countries, including the US and war-torn Congo, have and still do mine for the metals. But over the years, China used its massive domestic supply to outprice operations around the world, which eventually disappeared. Then, in 2010, China began restricting supply, which caused uproar from the EU, US, and Japan, who all complained to the World Trade Organization.

    That served as a huge wake-up call: Everyone from the US military to the Japanese auto industry realized that they needed to find new sources for the 14 commonly used rare earth elements. Japan is especially at risk, as the country's economy is the source of about half the world's demand for the metals–dysprosium, for example, is used in smartphone screens, and rare earth magnets in hybrid car motors.

    But now Japanese geologists have found a cache of rare earth metals buried in high concentrations in sea mud off the coast of Minami-Torishima Island, which itself lies far to the east of Japan's main islands. But that tiny island, which happens to be of huge strategic importance, now stands to reshape the whole gadget economy.

    That's because some of the finds lie within the exclusive economic zone (the area of marine control that extends from the shore of any coastal country) created by the island, which comprises an incredible 165,589 square miles. Thus, Japan legally owns the rights to undersea deposits hundreds of miles from its main islands because it also owns a tiny little island in the middle of nowhere. (The Telegraph, which wonderfully referred to the find as a "sea-mud bonanza," has a great graphic showing just how crucial the island is.)

    The deposits are a whopping 5,800 meters deep, and found about three meters below the seabed. That's incredibly deep, which would make mining difficult. But the deposits are apparently rather highly concentrated and may be able to be more or less sucked out with pressurized air, which would make extraction a less destructive enterprise than, say, underwater strip mining.

    And as professor Yasuhiro Kato from Tokyo University, the leader of the team that conducted the most recent survey, told the Telegraph, " We don't need to mine it intensively. All we need is enough to force China to lower its prices."

    Still, while it's good for technology everywhere, the find comes hot on the heels of a huge find of methane hydrate reserves by Japanese researchers. Now, I don't want to go all Chicken Little on you, but the two finds suggest that resource-poor Japan may soon make undersea mining a big priority. While the rare earth elements find appears to be minimally-invasive, it's a trend worth watching.

    But that aside, what's truly trippy about this whole story is that a bunch of mud thousands of feet below the sea holds some of the most important elements in today's economy. More importantly, Japan controls much of the rights to those deposits, thanks to its ownership of a mini island far away from any of its industry.