Come January, Japan will take new steps to chip away at China’s position as the country’s premier supplier of much-coveted rare earth minerals.
Japanese trading house Sumitomo Corp. cut the ribbon on a new plant in Kazakhstan on Friday that will begin extracting the rare earth metals, which are crucial to manufacturing a range of cutting-edge products, including smartphones and hybrid cars. The rare earth metals will be imported to Japan from as early as January 2013.
Sumitomo on Monday said it aims to produce about 750 metric tonnes in 2013, and double that by the following year, accounting for about 7.5 percent of Japan’s annual demand. Almost all will be Japan-bound. Some, though, could also go to Europe, according to a Sumitomo spokesman.
Sumitomo opened the plant in a joint venture with Kazakhstan’s National Atomic Company, also known as Kazatomprom. The two invested a total of about $30 million to create Summit Atom Rare Earth Co. three years ago, with the Kazakhstan side controlling 51 percent, according to a statement released by Kazatomprom on Friday. Kazatomprom also said production output could reach 6,000 metric tonnes by 2017.
The plant will extract the deposits through refining soil left in an old uranium mine. Production will include “high content of dysprosium and neodymium” – two of the 17 types of rare earth minerals, Sumitomo said.
The project comes after Japan and other developed countries have stepped up efforts in recent years to find alternative sources of rare earth minerals to curb their reliance on China, which until recently has been the dominant location where the minerals were found and refined in commercially viable quantities. That has given China almost absolute control of the market. About 95 percent of global production takes place in China.
Japan doubled down on efforts to get its rare earth fix elsewhere after the world’s No. 2 economy suspended exports following a territorial squabble that escalated in 2010 over contested islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in Chinese. Japan, along with the US and the European Union, requested that the World Trade Organisation probe China’s export quotas, duties and other restrictions in March, saying the Asian giant has unfairly restricted overseas sales.
Kazakhstan and Japan agreed to strengthen cooperation in developing rare earth minerals when Yukio Edano, minister of economy, trade and industry, visited the country in May. Edano also broached the topic when he stopped in India on the same trip. Sumitomo said it hopes to get government funding to develop the Kazakhstan plant further.