The Pulse: HREEs the U.S. needs to stockpile; Japan’s new but difficult dysprosium source
Two news stories published here on ProEdgeWire in the past 48 hours have grabbed my attention. And we need – as that recently-coined term, already a cliché, has it – to drill down into them. One is a report urging the U.S. to stockpile certain heavy rare earths. The other is Japan’s ongoing effort to recover rare earths from the seabed – a concept of which I was highly sceptical when it was first reported last year. Perhaps I should not have underestimated the Japanese ability to persevere once they have set their minds to something.
The first item concerned the latest biannual Strategic and Critical Materials 2013 Report on Stockpile Requirements out of the Strategic Materials Advisory Council. It recommends that Washington stockpile $120.43 million worth of heavy rare earths (part of a $319.74 million plan to stockpile 23 critical materials).
If you look at the various charts in the report, it turns out that yttrium is the material put at No. 5 on the list in terms of the amount of money that is recommended to be spent on them – it follows tin, antimony, aluminium oxide fused crude and silicon carbide. Dysprosium comes in at No. 11, erbium in 14th spot, terbium in No. 17, thulium at 18th, and scandium at 19th.
The council believes that $85 million worth of yttrium should be stockpiled, $22 million worth of dysprosium, $12 million worth of erbium, $7 million worth of thulium and $1 million worth of scandium. (For those of you who have not been keeping up with the thulium story – it is, after all, the rarest of the REE sector – thulium makes possible an X-ray intensifying screen phosphor, is used in stadium and movie lighting, and in lasers.)
The report also recommends substitution be attempted to reduce the amounts that have to be stockpiled. However, while stockpiling is the primary strategy recommended for yttrium and erbium, and to a lesser extent for dysprosium and thulium, it urges that as far as scandium is concerned, substitution should be the main strategy, and the primary strategy also for terbium.
Well and good, so far as it goes. All we need now is some non-China output of these heavy rare earths.
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RARE EARTHS #2: Japanese press reports, as recorded on this website in the past few days, say a team of government and academic researchers has found concentrations of dysprosium 30 times higher than is typical in China. This deposit lies below the seabed off Minamatori Island, 1,860km south of Tokyo. Last year an initial assessment of the deposit by Yashiro Kato of the University of Tokyo concluded that there was enough dysprosium there to keep Japan going for 230 years. So now we have two more critical pieces of the puzzle – that the grades appear very high and, from an economic perspective, the important fact that the mineralisation begins just 3km under the seabed. However, the seabed is 5,800 metres below the ocean surface.
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will start surveying the area soon after the new fiscal year begins on April 1, with plans to dig in about 40 locations over the next three years. The present resource estimate is 6.8 million tonnes – but while the Japanese press reports imply that represents 6.8 million contained tonnes of dysprosium, my guess would that they are in fact referring to dysprosium-bearing mineralisation. Nevertheless, that still would be an enormous quantity of dysprosium.
Even some Japanese are sceptical. The afternoon edition of Yomiuri Shimbun (circulation 3.4 million, in addition to the 9.9 million sales of the morning edition) noted that the cost of mining at depths of the nature could prove problematic, there never having been any mining carried out at such depths.
But it is evidence of the extent of Japan’s effort toward greater resource security, coming at a time when substitution for and recycling of rare earths has already seen substantial gains. Also we have seen the first gas produced from deep under the sea, with drilling for methane hydrate, which is methane has trapped in ice beneath the seabed.
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