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Rare earth minerals found in abundance in Jamaican mud.
Jamaica may be home to a large source of rare earth minerals, according to the findings of a Japanese mining company. It comes as companies and countries around the world continue searching for further sources of elements that are vital to modern technology.
The Associated Press has reported remarks from Jamaica’s science, technology, energy and mining minister, Philip Paulwell, who said that Jamaica’s red mud contains “high concentrations of rare-earth elements”. That’s good news for the country, as it means Japanese firm Nippon Light Metal is willing to invest $3 million (£1.9 million) in buildings and equipment for a pilot project to see if they can extract the hoped-for 1,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides each year.
The rare earth minerals each contain one or several of a collection of 17 different elements, many of which are necessary for modern electronics. When China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 its production of rare earth minerals was so high, and so cheap, that it forced almost every other mine in the world out of business — at one point 97 percent of these elements, or roughly 15,000 tonnes, were coming from Chinese mines. However, a combination of dwindling reserves and geopolitical paranoia has driven a search for new sources around the world, which brings us to Jamaica.
After gaining independence in 1962, Jamaica’s economy experienced an initial period of extremely high growth, driven in part by the mining of bauxite, which leaves behind large quantities of red mud that can now be reappropriated as a source of rare earth minerals. The country is still the fifth-largest exporter of bauxite in the world, but the recent worldwide economic turmoil has reduced demand and contributed to sluggish growth and a relatively high unemployment rate of 12.7 percent. Rare earth mineral extraction could prove a big boost the nation’s economy.
Despite their name, rare earth minerals are not actually rare in the sense that there aren’t many of them — they’re distributed relatively evenly throughout the Earth’s crust. However, there are few locations where they exist in concentrations high enough to make extraction cost-effective, which is why it wouldn’t be wise to start an allanite mine in your back garden.
Countries have responded to the decline in availability of Chinese rare earth minerals with their own projects. Japan and Vietnam have launched a joint centre for research into rare earth mineral extraction, and in 2012 a team from the University of Tokyo claims to have found 6.2 million tonnes of rare earth minerals in the Pacific seabed.
Meanwhile, in the US, Molycorp is trying to reopen the Mountain Pass mine in California which, in the decades after the Second World War, produced most of the world’s rare earth minerals. However, rumours over the viability of reopening the mine have delayed production.