As the country hardest hit by Mainland China’s “Rare Earth Export Quota Reduction”, will Japan’s Urban Mining scheme become an unseemly source of rare earths?
By: Ringo Bones
Ever since that notorious incident back in September 7, 2010 where a Mainland Chinese trawler captain rammed his fishing trawler into a Japanese navy patrol ship in a disputed territory claimed by both countries, diplomatic tensions between Japan and the People’s Republic of China has since reached an all time high. Soon thereafter, the Beijing government decided to reduce its rare earth export quotas citing its own high tech industry’s growing need of the precious resource.
Unfortunately, given that the People’s Republic of China has a virtual monopoly – over 90% in fact – of the worlds commercial supply of rare earth metals, the move became a thinly-veiled excuse as an embargo on Beijing’s rare earth ore concentrate exports to Japan. As the country hardest hit by the People’s Republic of China’s “Rare Earth Export Quota Reduction”, will Japan eventually find another way to supply its domestic high tech manufacturing firms with rare earth metals?
For over two months now, not a single kilo of rare earth ore concentrate from the Chinese Mainland had arrived in Japanese shores, says Shigeo Nakamura of Advanced Material Japan Corporation, one of Japan’s main rare earth ore concentrate buyers from the People’s Republic of China. Because of this, Japan had resorted to “Urban Mining”, a scheme of extracting rare earths from e-wastes and other obsolete consumer electronic and computer gear.
According to Daisuke Takahashi of Highbridge Computers, his firm now makes a profit in urban mining rare earths from the tin but powerful magnets found in the read/write heads of obsolete computer hard disc drives. Even the phosphors of cathode ray tube type computer monitors – which are rich in rare earths – are already a prime source of the precious raw material in Japan.
Not only e-wastes are a prime rare earth source for urban mining, old electric typewriters, audiophile grade cassette tape decks and even a late 1990s era Sega Megadrive are now mined for rare earth metals in Japan. Even though urban mining might seem like an environmentally friendly way of extracting rare earth metals through recycling by preventing e-wastes and obsolete consumer electronic gear from winding up in landfills and endangering the local water table when rainwater leaches their poisonous by-products of breakdown, it can’t supply Japan and the rest of the world’s need for rare earths in mobile phone, laptop, hybrid car and wind turbine generator production – and future applications that could provide us with carbon neutral energy sources.
As a way of exploring ways on how Japan can weather the global rare earth shortage due to the People’s Republic of China’s strong-arm tactics in keeping geopolitical dominance through rare earth metals monopoly, Kazuhiko Hono of Japan’s National Institute for Material Science had recently been experimenting with lasers to explore the atomic structure of modern rare earth alloy permanent magnets used in hybrid car motors and wind turbine generators. The aim is to find ways of constructing newfangled permanent magnets that are as strong as their predecessors while using reduced amounts of rare earths. But the true long-term solution will be is to restart and develop the rare earth industries of much friendlier countries that previously supplied rare earth metals in the past that has been since superseded by Mainland China due to economic reasons. Like Canada, India, and (hopefully not a Republican run) the United States.