China is now the globe's main supplier of rare-earth elements. Worried by that dominance, manufacturers around the globe have been spurring searches for other sources that could be profitably mined.
Rare-earth elements aren't scarce, but few places exist with enough concentrations to be profitable. They are difficult to isolate in a purified form and require advanced technology to extract.
Paul Henderson, an honorary professor in the earth sciences department at University College London and who is not involved in the research in Jamaica, said the rock from which any bauxite is derived will ultimately determine its rare-earth contents. "Not all bauxites will have much in the way of rare earths," Henderson said in an email.
But Nippon Light Metal believes that the concentration of rare-earth elements in Jamaica's red mud is "significantly greater" than other international red mud sites and it hopes to eventually extract 1,500 metric tons of rare-earth elements per year, said Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell.
Nippon has agreed to invest $3 million in buildings and equipment for the pilot project while also being responsible for operating costs. Any rare-earth elements extracted during this phase will be jointly owned by Jamaica and the Japanese company. Negotiations for commercialization are expected to occur later.
Paulwell said in Parliament last month that rare-earth oxides were being traded at $3,500 per kilogram.
Speculating on the demand for rare-earth elements in the future "is a bit like looking into the tea leaves other than the fact that demand is sure to increase," Henderson said from Britain.
"By how much depends of course on the possible introduction of new technologies and range of other issues such as how much investment in green energies, especially wind turbines, changes," he said.
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter/com/dmcfadd