Japan's 'Rare Earth' Mineral Discovery Could Fix iPad Supply Shortages

07/05/2011 09:24 am ET | Updated Sep 04, 2011

Large deposits of so-called "rare earth" minerals crucial for manufacturing electronic devices like iPads and flat-screen TVs have been discovered on the ocean floor by Japan.

Scientists found the minerals on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, according to the Wall Street Journal. The trove is said to include minerals such as gadolinium, lutetium, terbium and dysprosium. The minerals could multiply the known supply on land by 1,000 times.

Currently, China produces the vast majority of the global supply of rare earth minerals and has used its 97 percent share to threaten export blockages. The low supply of such minerals has been a cause of concern for some time, fueling fears that electronics prices could skyrocket, or that supply of the gadgets themselves could be reduced.

"The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square km (0.4 sq mile) 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 in the report, according to The Guardian.

The minerals were discovered in sea mud at 3,500 to 6,000 meters below the surface of the sea in 78 locations, with one-third of sites displaying rare earth content. Scientists estimate that there are 80 to 100 billion tons of the minerals under the sea. Right now, 110 million tons have been found on land.

The deposits are located in international waters, according to reports. Mining will take place "east and west of Hawaii, as well as east of Tahiti in French Polynesia," Reuters reports.

To collect these minerals, extraction pumps will pull mud up from the sea floor.

"Sea mud can be brought up to ships and we can extract rare earths right there using simple acid leaching," Kato said. "Using diluted acid, the process is fast, and within a few hours we can extract 80-90% of rare earths from the mud."