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Japan to Import Rare Earths from Kazakhstan

Friday 2 November 2012

TOKYO (The Daily Yomiuri) – With the support of the Japanese government, Sumitomo Corp. will start importing from Kazakhstan rare earth elements – indispensable in high-tech industries – as early as January, according to several official sources. The amount of imports is expected to be about 1,500 tons per year, or 7.5% of the Japan annual demand of 20,000 tons for the metals, the sources said.

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Senkaku Islands dispute
Vessels of the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration and Japan Coast Guard during a confrontation between the two on 2012-07-04.
(Photo: Keelung Coast Guard)
China suspended rare earth exports to Japan after a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands in 2010, dealing a blow to Japanese manufacturers. After the incident, the Japanese government started negotiations with countries such as Australia and India to import rare earths, and it also has been promoting research on rare earth deposits in the country’s territorial waters. By diversifying rare earth suppliers, Japan hopes to lessen the diplomatic pressure China is able to exert due to its possession of natural resources.
China is the dominant producer of rare earth metals, which are increasingly fuelling the global high-tech and green economy. From 2009 to 2010, Chinese mines accounted for 259,000 tonnes out of a total global production of 263,000 tonnes of rare earth oxide.

The imports from Kazakhstan reportedly will include heavy rare earth elements, which comprise 10 of the 17 total rare earths and are less common and more valuable than the other seven. The metals, including dysprosium, terbium and yttrium, are used for enhancing the operations of high-tech products. Compared with the other seven light rare earth elements, which are produced around the world, heavy rare earth deposits are concentrated in China.

Until now, Japan has been heavily dependent on China for its supply, and this is the first time the country will import the metals from another country. In light of the growing tension with China, the Japanese government will further seek to diversify its rare earth suppliers, the sources said.

In 2009, Sumitomo agreed with Kazakhstan’s state-owned resource firm Kazatomprom to jointly develop rare earths and import the metals. A plant to extract the deposits by refining soil left in a uranium mine is scheduled to start full-scale operations in Kazakhstan on Friday.

Japan reportedly will import about 20 tons of dysprosium annually, which is crucial for the manufacturing of hybrid vehicle motors and smartphones. The amount is equivalent to 3% Japan annual demand for the metal, which is about 600 tons. Yttrium and terbium will also be imported, both which are necessary to manufacture fluorescent lamps used as backlights of liquid crystal televisions.

The Japanese government has been supporting Sumitomo and Kazatomprom in various ways, such as by facilitating negotiations between the two firms. In May, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano visited Kazakhstan and reached an agreement with Kazakh Industry and New Technologies Minister Aset Isekeshev to cooperate on the development of natural resources. The government will provide Sumitomo with financial support to develop rare earths in Kazakhstan through the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, the sources said.

In 2014, Japan aims to receive annual imports of 3,000 to 4,000 tons of rare earth elements, including heavy rare earths, from Kazakhstan, the sources said. The industrial sector welcomes the government’s efforts to diversify rare earth suppliers. “We hope the latest move will lead to stable rare earth supplies,” an official at the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association declared.

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