Japan’s REE Diversification

More news today from Japan, where the unofficial rare earths war gets more interesting with each passing month. This week’s instalment is Japan’s Parliament completing passage of a law to take effect next April, promoting the recycling of consumer electronics that usually use some of the rare earth elements to make them work.

Japan is now following a multi-pronged policy in its REE fight with China. The first policy was to seek to diversify its sources of REE supply, cutting deals with India and Vietnam, and opening up exploration land locked Mongolia. The second is largely a big bluff in my opinion, threatening to make all the gadgets, EV engines and turbines without using any REEs at all. Then came Japan’s announcement last year, reinforced again this year, that they have discovered enormous REE resources located on the floor of the deep ocean Pacific Ocean, and all within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. According to Japan, these resources are to begin to be exploited in about three years. Finally, Japan joined America and the EU, in filling an REE illegal export regime complaint against China, at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

Diet approves law for rare metal recycling
The Diet passed into law on Friday a bill for promoting the recycling of rare metals and other resources used in small consumer electronics, such as mobile phones and digital cameras.

The House of Councillors unanimously approved the bill, which already has been passed by the House of Representatives. The new law will take effect next April.

While Japan heavily relies on imports for rare metals, most of them used in small consumer electronics are landfilled as waste.

The law provides for a system in which municipalities collect used small consumer electronics and government-certified firms separate rare metals and other resources from them. However, each municipality will decide whether to launch the system.
(Aug. 4, 2012)


So what does it all add up to? Well in my opinion, and it is just my opinion, substitution isn’t much of a viable option, while diversification of sources is proving to be too slow and costly, and risks transferring refining technology outside of Japan. As for deep Pacific Ocean mining for REE muds, that’s easier said than done. To do it at all requires billion’s in up-front investment and equipment, building up an REE mining expertise that doesn’t really exist, and anyway risks setting off a war with the global “save the planet and oceans” movement, that will make the green movement’s war against Japanese whaling  look like a picnic.

If Japan had very much confidence in any of these prongs had much viability, I don’t think Japan would have joined in the complaint at the WTO. Recycling on the other hand, just might work in a well ordered country like Japan, though given Japan’s fuel import needs, it might not prove very cost effective. Anyway, with each municipality having to decide on whether to set up a recycling system, it might take a very long time to implement and get up to the economy of scale. We are still in a world badly in need of some more non-Chinese REE supply.