Industry, govt, academia must strive to make use of Japan’s seabed resources

If the mining of rare mineral resources in the seabed in waters around Japan can be commercialized, it will pave the way for the stable procurement of important resources. Industry, government and academia must accelerate their efforts.

A government panel of experts has compiled an opinion paper on the formulation of the country’s next Basic Plan on Ocean Policy.

It urged the government to focus on the development of mineral resources and, in particular, to promote as a national strategy the development of technology to recover mud containing rare earth elements, which are used in high-tech products, from the bottom of the deep sea.

The basic plan is an ocean policy guideline that Japan, a nation surrounded by oceans, formulates every five years to maximize the use of the oceans as a foundation for national security and economic growth. The next plan is said to be due to be formulated around May next year.

The reason that the panel’s opinion paper cited the development of resources and minerals as the most important issue is that economic security is becoming increasingly important against the backdrop of U.S.-China antagonism and other factors. It is only appropriate to build awareness on the issue.

Rare-earth mud was discovered in 2012 at a depth of more than 5,000 meters in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Minami-Torishima island in the Oga-sawara Islands. The resource is estimated to be equivalent to several hundred years of Japan’s consumption.

There are 17 rare earth metals, including neodymium, which is used in high-power magnets. Rare earths are indispensable for electronic devices such as smartphones, as well as fuel cells and electric vehicles.

Currently, domestic demand relies entirely on imports, 60% of which come from China. Beijing restricted exports to Japan after the collision of a Chinese fishing boat with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats off the Senkaku Islands in 2010, using the incident as a tool to put pressure on Tokyo. If rare earths can be produced domestically, it would have great significance in terms of economic security.

However, being located in deep waters means there are many technical challenges to mining these resources, so actually tapping them is taking time.

The government, in cooperation with companies and universities, is finally establishing a mining method using pumps and pipelines. The government plans to complete a practical test to collect rare earths from a depth of 3,000 meters within this year and to realize mining them from a depth of 6,000 meters over a five-year period starting next fiscal year.

The government is urged to achieve the commercialization of rare earth mining as soon as possible by utilizing technologies of the United States and other countries that have expertise in seabed development.

In addition, it is estimated there are large reserves of methane hydrate, natural gas in an icy, sherbet-like form, in the seabed around Japan. Japan once aimed at commercializing methane hydrate mining around fiscal 2018, but due to delays in the development of mining technology, the target year is now set at fiscal 2027.

With the crisis in Ukraine, stable procurement of resources and minerals has become even more difficult. Japan, which has few natural resources on land, should focus more on marine development to take advantage of its rich oceans.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 20, 2022)