The rare metal detectives - Monocolumn | Monocle


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26 June 2010

Once upon a time it was all about tea and spices. Today, a more modern battle is brewing on the eastern front: the race to secure rare metals.

A global surge in green technology has sparked an international rush to secure rare metals such as lithium, cobalt and vanadium, supplies of which are urgently required to sustain 21st century products, from mobile phones and headphones to wind turbines and electric car batteries.

The monopoly may currently be held by China, the world’s biggest producer of rare metals, but Japan is increasingly pushing rare metal acquisition to the top of its political agenda.

From 1 July, the revision of a Japanese law enabling companies to acquire overseas mining rights will come into effect paving the way for a rush of new projects. As a result, state-owned Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp (JOGMEC) will invest 27.5 billion yen in private mining and minerals projects this financial year.

“Rare metals are a very important resource for Japan with its car and IT industries and the establishment a low carbon society,” says Uematsu Kazuhiko, JOGMEC’s PR director.” This is a very important revision as it will allow us to invest in private companies for the first time, while before we were limited to national projects.”

Bolivia, whose southwest deserts are home to the world’s largest untapped lithium reserves, is being vigorously wooed by Japan and China with generous aid packages as both nations seek lucrative mining sites. Toshiba last month signed an agreement with a state-run nuclear power company in Kazakhstan to market rare metals, and a new rare metal plant created by the Japanese corporation Showa Denko has also recently been completed in the Ha Na Province of Vietnam, with an annual production target of 800 tonnes of metal.

Meanwhile, an innovative new government strategy involves scouring the seafloor within Japan’s exclusive economic zone for rare metal deposits using underwater robots.

Other Japanese initiatives include tapping into the massively lucrative “urban mines” of discarded mobile phones and other electronics: some estimates claim 15 per cent of the world’s reserve of gold and 61 per cent of indium are lying in Japan’s reservoirs of old mobile phones.

Ming Hwa Ting, a rare metals industry expert at University of Adelaide, says: “States are starting to recognise the vital part rare metals play in tomorrow’s greening economy.”

“It is in Japan’s national interest to ensure that it has a stable and predictable supply of lithium, which powers the next generation of automobiles. With a limited supply of lithium and demand for hybrid cars expected to increase exponentially in the near future, a serious shortage looms.”

The 21st century rare metal rush, it seems, has only just begun.


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