The Japanese government has secretly been looking at probing the seabed from next spring for deposits of ultra-rare metals used extensively by Japanese electronics manufacturers and other cutting-edge technology players.
In a move to become resource independent from China officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Japan advised "The Times" that they plan to tap huge, black submarine boulders for deposits of rare metals extruded from the earth's core from two spots of seabed potentially rich with indium, gallium and germanium. If the multimillion pound budget wins parliamentary approval it may trigger disputes between China and Japan as one area is near a hypothetical exclusive economic zone border in the East China Sea that has historically proved to be politically explosive.
The scheme which is based on an untested theory of volcanic science and geology comes amid rising fears that the supply of indium and gallium may become volatile over the next few years due to the new export quotas enforced last year by China. Japan sources most of its indium from China who control over 60% of the world's refined indium production.
The flat panel display market is dominated by Japanese companies and over 70% of the world's consumption of indium is used for Flat Panel Displays (FPD).
There has been speculation that at current consumption rates of indium, the reserve base will only last 13 years but the Indium Corporation in the US who are the largest processor of indium claim that on the basis of increasing recovery yields during extraction, recovery from a wider range of base metals (including tin, copper and other polymetallic deposits) and new mining investments, the long-term supply of indium is sustainable, reliable and sufficient to meet increasing future demands.
Indium, gallium and germanium will be important materials for the photovoltaics industry and a significant increase of indiuim and gallium ia likely with the future increase of large-scale manufacture of CIGS based on thin film solar technology.
The recent constrained availability of gallium during 2007 and the resultant price run-up is another example of the intermittent volatility and does not reflect any long term concern about supply. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2006, world primary production of gallium was estimated to be about 69 metric tons, the same as that in 2005. China, Germany, Japan, and Ukraine were the leading producers.
Germanium has also seen a price increase due to higher levels of demand over the last few years. In 2006, an estimated 100 metric tons of germanium was produced worldwide.
The Japanese government is unsure how much indium, gallium and germanium is available in the seabed as there has been little analysis of the deposits. Some scientific advisers to the Japanese Government have speculated that the rocks may contain larger troves of copper and zinc ores.
Also read Fatal Attraction for Rare Metals and Augsberg University Calculate When Our Materials Run Out - Soon.