Potential 'semi-infinite' source of rare metals used in technology found near Japan

Minamitorishima Island from above.
Minamitorishima Island from above. Photo credit: Google Maps

A potentially major new source of rare metals has been discovered off the coast of Japan, possibly altering the world's economy significantly.

A study published in academic journal Nature looked at the potential of deep sea mud near the Japanese island of Minamitorishima.

Researchers discovered that a huge supply of minerals lay in the mud and could potentially be sifted out and used in smartphones, hybrid vehicle batteries and military technologies.

According to the study, there is potentially 780 years' worth of yttrium, 620 years' worth of europium, 420 years' worth of terbium and 730 years' worth of dysprosium.

In plain English, this means it "has the potential to supply these materials on a semi-infinite basis to the world".

China currently has a tight grip on the world's supply of rare earth minerals and controls around 95 percent of the world's supply, CNN reports.

According to a US Geological Survey (USGS) report, adding new supply would significantly change many technological aspects of US society.

There is, however, a long way to go; the mud is very deep and experts say miners would need specialised technology to reach it.

"The water gaps here are on the order of five or six kilometers, in the range of 16,000 to 20,000 feet," mineral resources program coordinator at the USGS, Tom Crafford, told CNN.

"That's pretty severe. You'd really require some very sophisticated technology to operate at these kinds of depths."