Japan’s “reduce, replace and recycle” policy on rare earths is certainly on track — and to that you can add “reap” and “reserve”. The first three Rs refers to the policy of reducing the amount of rare earths used in existing technology and designing future products with an eye to similar minimal use; replacing REE with substitutes; and recycling rare earths from magnets and other items for re-use. The two new additions refer to reaping REE and other metals from the seabed, while “reserve” signals an effort to find REE deposits that can be acquired by Japanese companies, and there appears to be an intention in that regard in Africa.
First, the developing in reaping. Tokyo has made no secret of its plans — notwithstanding the extraordinary costs involved — to explore and mine rare earths from the ocean floor within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Now the Nikkei news service reports on plans to make more efficient its control of the EEZ for the specific management of two resources, one being rare earths; the other is methane hydrate, which is methane gas trapped or dissolved in ice formed in deep-sea sediments. [It has been estimated there is 49 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that can be extracted from beneath the sea bed around the Japanese islands, enough to supply all the country's gas needs for the equivalent of 11 years.]
As the Nikkei reports, “under international law, countries are allowed to tap resources within their EEZs, but in Japan such activities are poorly managed because they are governed by different laws and overseen by various ministries“. What the government is now trying to do is clarify jurisdiction issues among these ministries.
On the “reserve” issue, Japan is trying to counter China’s growing influence in Africa, especially in relation to natural resources. There are reports that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may travel to sub-Saharan Africa in January to forge closer ties with the continent’s resource-rich nations and promote Japanese aid-funded infrastructure. Rare earths is one of the resources being mentioned in particular.
Japanese companies have fostered relations with several rare earths developers — in Australia alone, that includes Lynas Corp and Alkane Resources, just as the South Koreans have allied themselves with Frontier Rare Earths. Expect more such alliances
As for “reduce”, another report from Nikkei says that fuel-cell cars are now costing much less to make since a reduction in rare earths use. No details are given, but the report says scaling back rare earths in various components has brought down production costs to a level which will make them more affordable by more drivers.
OIL and GAS: Speaking of methane hydrate, the Atlanta-based Morris News Service reports that Alaska state officials are working with the U.S. Department of Energy on production testing to extract methane from hydrates on the North Slope, the northern part of Alaska which borders the Chukchi Sea (just north of Bering Strait) and the Beaufort Sea, which merges with the Arctic Ocean (and which encompasses the huge Prudhoe Bay oil field). The report says Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources had set aside 11 tracts of unleased state lands on the slope for methane hydrate research. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates resources of 84 trillion cubic feet across the North Slope.
“Hydrate research wells have been drilled in the Prudhoe Bay field as well as in the MacKenzie River delta of Canada, with methane produced in tests that lasted several days. The results point toward ways the methane might be commercially extracted, and the next step is a longer-term production test using those methods,” the report added.
BP, ConocoPhillips and Anadarko Petroleum have been involved in some of the drilling . The 11 tracts selected are just north of the Prudhoe field and are unleased, the report added.
Alaska believes Japanese or Indian companies may be interested in joining consortia to exploit the resource.