Japan has set out to become a major manufacturer of rare earth minerals suggested in this periodical Geological Survey Circular published in 1993. How far along Japan is at becoming the world’s biggest producers of rare earth minerals is anyone’s guess. Since these rare earth minerals are largely used for military technology and industrial manufacturing like for example camera lenses and in the nuclear industry, this type of sensitive information is not likely to show up in a newspaper article. Japan is heavily dependent on the mineral monazite which was first discovered in the 1880s by the Austrian scientist and inventor Carl Auer von Welsbach. Monazite was first given the name monazit in German. Auer von Welsbach is most notable for his investigations into rare earth metals using chemical separation methods so Japan owes its industrial reliance on monazite to von Welsbach.
Monazite is a reddish-brown phosphate mineral containing rare earth metals, but these minerals have to first be extracted using extraction techniques that are expensive and leave residual toxic chemicals. Over the years, I’ve often wondered where these residual toxic materials are stored or disposed? Thousands of tons of monazite-containing ore are shipped to Japan every year mainly from China and India for extracting rare earth minerals. Recovering rare earths from monazite is accomplished by alkaline and acidic methods. This process is relative cheap but produces caustic effects during the extraction process. The rare earth mineral thorium (Germanic and named after Thor, the Norse God of thunder) is mostly derived from monazite which is used in the nuclear power industry. Thorium is considered a “primordial element”, which are nuclides which have been found on earth in their current form since the earth’s existence. Japan relies on China for almost all of its supplies of monazite with China being the world’s largest producer of rare earth minerals. Considering Japan’s recent spate with China, Japan has strategically aligned itself with India in which Japan has made recent agreements with to import monazite from India.
There are only 17 rare earth minerals and most of these rare earth minerals are used in the manufacturing of magnets. Other uses for rare earth metals are used in the nuclear industry, electronics, computer hardware, sonar systems, metal alloys, lasers, LED lighting, X-ray machines and electric motors. So we can see that without rare earth metals and their increasing need is only going to intensify which means China, having the most access to this critical resource, will use them as a bargaining chip against Japan. And isn’t it interesting that the intensifying confrontation between Japan and China is taking shape the way it is when Japan relies on China for most of its access to monazite?