Even the Japanese…

….get sucked into silly government subsidy boondoggles.

The Japanese Government is secretly hatching plans for a huge underwater treasure hunt in the depths of the East China Sea in an urgent effort to secure supplies of the “vitamins of industry”.

The ambitious project, which could begin as early as next spring, will probe the seabed for deposits of ultra-rare metals used extensively by Japanese electronics manufacturers and other cutting-edge technology players.

In a briefing with The Times, senior officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) described plans to tap “huge, black submarine boulders” for possible deposits of rare metals extruded from the Earth\’s core. If the state-sponsored quest is successful —and its multimillion-pound budget seems certain to win parliamentary approval — Japan may realise an old dream of resource independence from its sometimes troublesome neighbour China.

The metals they\’re looking for? Gallium, germanium and indium.

They are indeed essential to the electronics industry, but going prospecting for ore on the seabed, risking a clash with China, is insane.

Gallium is extracted from the Bayer Process, the method we use to turn bauxite into alumina (on the way to making aluminium). I don\’t have the exact numbers at my fingertips but there\’s some 35 such plants around the world and fewer than 10 of them have the necessary (and relatively cheap) extraction equipment. Spending a few million (each) on adding a capture circuit to a few more of them would make better sense.

Germanium is similarly extracted from other ores. If that\’s not enough, fly ash (the residue from a coal fired power station) is a decent source: we know how to extract it too. Indeed, the mines at Vorkuta are famed for having 1 kg of Ge per tonne of coal. I\’m a little out of date here but the last time I sold Ge scrap I got $500 per kilo for it: meaning that the waste from burning certain coals is worth 10 times the coal itself. You could stick a capture circuit on the side of Drax and supply the world.

Indium, I can\’t remember which it is, lead or zinc….but again, it\’s there in ores that are already being processed and not every plant doing such processing extracts it.

Better to process ores lready being consumed than to go rootling around the seabed, don\’t you think?

2 thoughts on “Even the Japanese…”

  1. I very much agree, Tim.

    Tim adds: Well, yes, I would rather expect you to agree, given that you are my co-investor in a plant to extract rare metals from the residues of the Bayer Process….

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