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Japan, Kazakhstan Agree to Expand Joint Rare Earth Development Project

Wednesday 2 May 2012

ASTANA (Kyodo) – Japan and Kazakhstan agreed Tuesday to expand their countries’ joint rare earth development project and promote their cooperation in radioactive decontamination. The agreement came at talks between Japanese industry minister Yukio Edano and his Kazakh counterpart Asset Issekeshev in the Kazakh capital Astana, Japanese officials said.

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Rare Earth
As defined by International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), rare earth elements (REEs) or rare earth metals are a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium are considered rare earth elements since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and exhibit similar chemical properties.
Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the radioactive promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms.
The few economically exploitable deposits are known as rare earth minerals. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called “earths”) that led to the term “rare earth”. The first such mineral discovered was gadolinite, a compound of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon and other elements. This mineral was extracted from a mine in the village of Ytterby in Sweden; many of the rare earth elements bear names derived from this location.

The agreement will double Kazakhstan’s annual exports of the rare earth element dysprosium to Japan to some 60 tons from an earlier-envisaged level under the bilateral project. Japan’s consumption of dysprosium for electric vehicle motors and other products total 500 to 600 tons annually. The project, as well as Japan’s agreement with India on Monday to import Indian rare earths into Japan, is designed to reduce Japan’s heavy dependence on China for rare earth supply at a time when China accounts for 90% of global rare earth output and strategically restricts rare earth exports.

A joint venture including Japanese trading house Sumitomo Corp. is undertaking the project and its plant to extract dysprosium will launch operation possibly in June for exports to Japan starting as early as July. The government-run Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation provides financial support for the project. Japan’s Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. is expected to take part in the project by providing a rare earth extraction technology.

On radioactive decontamination, Japanese nuclear plant maker Toshiba Corp. signed a memorandum with Kazakhstan on Tuesday to introduce Kazakh technology for cleaning up areas contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Kazakhstan has advanced radioactive decontamination technology since it had been home to Soviet nuclear test sites. Toshiba will provide Kazakhstan with know-how gained through its experience with the Fukushima nuclear accident. The Japanese firm and Kazakhstan will also cooperate in developing technology for disposing of radioactive waste when decommissioning nuclear plants.

Until 1948, most of the world’s rare earths were sourced from placer sand deposits in India and Brazil. Through the 1950s, South Africa took the status as the world’s rare earth source, after large veins of rare earth bearing monazite were discovered there. Through the 1960s until the 1980s, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California was the leading producer. Today, the Indian and South African deposits still produce some rare earth concentrates, but they are dwarfed by the scale of Chinese production. China now produces over 95% of the world’s rare earth supply, mostly in Inner Mongolia, even though it has only 37% of proven reserves. All of the world’s heavy rare earths (such as dysprosium) come from Chinese rare earth sources such as the polymetallic Bayan Obo deposit. In 2010, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a study which found that the United States had 13 million metric tons of rare earth elements.

New demand has recently strained supply, and there is growing concern that the world may soon face a shortage of the rare earths.

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