Japan still deadly serious about finding own sources of technology metals
Remember the much-promoted story (2010 through 2013) about all the rare earths and other metals Japan had discovered beneath the seabed? Not much has been heard about that in recent months – which is not surprising given that it is widely believed Japanese manufacturers are obtaining regular REE (rare earth elements)supplies from illegal miners and exporters based in China; moreover, Japanese sources were reporting earlier this month that neodymium was trading at about $66 per kilogram, down more than 20% since April, and back at a price level last seen in 2010 before the great REE surge took place. The reports said Japanese companies were buying dysprosium in early June at around $350/kg, that being a five-year low.
So expensive seabed exploration and extraction clearly would not stack up in the present climate, one presumes. So how come a Japanese company is setting out to raise money to send a rover to the Moon to prospect for rare earths? It doesn’t sound like an idea whose time has come, given the terrible price falls across the mineral commodity range, does it? Tungsten, antimony, bismuth and selenium are among the technology metals that have taken hits in recent weeks. And on Monday’s session at the London Metal Exchange, nickel fell $645/tonne to $11,845 (its lowest since May 2009) and tin was hit again, dropping to a low of $14,425/tonne.
Exploring the Moon may not seem an idea likely to get much traction at a time when Greece is on the brink of economic collapse and China stock markets are being watched very closely as equities take more hits today, but the Nikkei news service seems to be taking it seriously. (And we must always keep in mind that the Japanese are long-term planners, so the present state of commodity prices may not figure too highly on their priority list.)
Nikkei reports that Tokyo-based Ispace Technologies plans to use multiple rovers to analyze the Moon’s surface. Then, says CEO Takeshi Hakamada, the company will sell the data to mining companies in Japan and abroad. But he does qualify the plans with the fact that Ispace has yet to raise the necessary finance.
There is another problem: the government is already planning something similar. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency plans to launch a small lunar probe in the fiscal year starting April 2019 to look at the resources that the moon is thought to hold.
Ispace wants to target an area of the moon called Lacus Mortis, which means “Lake of Death.”
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This plan originated with Professor Kazuya Yoshida at Tohoku University at Sendai, northeastern Japan. The Nikkei says Yoshida is influential in Japanese aerospace engineering circles. He was also involved in developing a small exploration robot carried on asteroid explorer Hayabusa 2.
Meanwhile, the Yomiuri Shimbun reports the Japanese government’s Natural Resources and Energy Agency intends during fiscal 2017 to conduct deep sea test mining of minerals below the seabed off Okinawa. The newspaper says the government aims to mine as much as 1,000 tonnes of zinc, silver and other metals at about a depth of 1,600 metres. That is being billed as the world’s first large-scale seabed mining effort.
There has been so much focus on Japan’s total dependence on imports for its rare earths since the 2010 confrontation with China over disputed islands which led to Beijing cutting off REE supplies. But Japan is also 100% reliant on imports for all the iron ore, copper and zinc that goes into its factories and comes out as automobiles and household appliances.
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