Japan depends largely on China and other countries in Africa and South America for the supply of rare metals. Starting in 2006 China began slowly reducing export volume of rare earth and rare metals. China’s mid-2010 announcement that it would drastically reduce rare earth and rare metals exports has raised significant concerns in Japan, which currently depends on China for over 90% of its supply of rare earth and rare metals. During the last two months of 2010, all shipments of rare earth and rare metals from China to Japan ceased, and prices jumped by 230%. Both the government and the private sector in Japan are now working to take a number of steps in order to ensure a steady supply of these vital metals.
In 2008 Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industries (METI) established a study group under the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy to formulate a national strategy to cope with challenges in the supply of rare metals. The final report, published in 2009, proposed four basic measures: obtaining mining right of overseas rare metal resources; recycling; development of alternative materials or technologies to reduce the use of rare metal; and the development of a national strategic reserve.
From this report, one clear trend that can be seen in the Japanese market is in recycling. Many private companies and academic institutions have initiated projects to recover rare metals from used and discharged high-tech products such as PCs, motors, mobile phones and other kinds of information technology equipment. Recycling companies typically collect the discharged products and disassemble them into parts which contain rare metals. Smelting or fine chemical companies then extract the rare metals from these recovered parts.
Rare metals are essential materials for auto and information technology products such as mobile phones, PC digital cameras, and TVs. Usage is expected to expand further as fuel cell and electro Luminescence technologies are further developed. Japan is a leading producer of these high technology products, and accordingly Japan’s consumption of rare metals is also quite high. The below table indicates the consumption volume of major rare metals in Japan.
The Japanese market for rare metals has been experiencing large price swings over the past year. For example, as of July 2011 the Japanese domestic price for Neodymium, used in motors for hybrid cars, was up 10 times over the price of just one year before.
What started as a rare metal supply crisis has quickly become a competition for the development of diversified sources of supply, technology and techniques for recycling, techniques for reduced usage, and alternative materials.
As both the United States and Japan are home to strong high-technology industries, the needs and demand of both nations are similar. Japan should be a good market for American firms that can provide recovered scrap materials for recycling, and that can provide and/or join in the development of the technologies and techniques for recycling, reduced usage and the development of alternative materials. Best prospects include:
Rare earth: ore, intermediate or purified final products
Scrap containing rare metals for recycling
Technologies for recycling rare metal from scrap
Technologies to help in reducing the use of rare metals
Technologies to replace the use of rare metals with alternative materials
Alternative materials (once identified/developed)