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Huge deposits of rare earth found undersea

world Updated: Jul 05, 2011 01:41 IST

Japanese scientists have discovered huge deposits of "rare earth" minerals, crucial for making electronics products such as smartphones, tablets such as the iPad and flat-screen TVs, on the floor of the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii - and they say they are easy to extract.

The discovery could expand the known deposits of the materials by a thousand times, immediately reducing concerns about supply.

"The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one sq km of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption," Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, said.

The discovery, made by a team led by Kato and including researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, could have important implications for the production of materials requiring "rare earths" such as tantalum and yttrium. China has the largest land-based deposits of the crucial metals, and produces about 97% of the global supply.

But it announced in December that it was slashing exports of the materials - leading to fears of a shortage or of much higher prices for products that use them.

The new research found the minerals in sea mud extracted from depths of 3,500 to 6,000 metres below the ocean surface at 78 locations.

One-third of the sites yielded rich contents of rare earths and the metal yttrium, Kato said.