The government plans to commercialize the mining of cobalt and other rare metals that are found on the seabed around Japan’s easternmost point of Minamitorishima island, part of the Ogasawara Islands administered by Tokyo, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
By the end of 2028, the government will establish mining technology and decide where to mine in its exclusive economic zone. China is also increasingly interested in the abundant resources on the seabed around the island, so Japan aims to secure these mineral resources.
According to the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC), cobalt-rich crusts are widely spread on the seabed around the island. It is estimated that cobalt in the amount equivalent to about 88 years of domestic consumption and nickel of about 12 years are on the seabed in the area. In July, Japan conducted the world’s first successful excavation of the seabed at a depth of about 900 meters to the south of the island.
Demand for cobalt, which is used as a raw material for lithium-ion batteries such as those in electric vehicles, is expected to increase as Japan looks to become a decarbonized society. However, almost all cobalt is imported, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where armed insurgents continue to confront each other, accounts for half of the world’s total cobalt production of approximately 120,000 tons per year. Thus, Japan needs to secure a stable supply of the mineral.
From next fiscal year, which starts in April, the government will develop a machine equipped with a cutter to extract ore, among other equipment, and aim to establish technologies from mining to smelting. The cobalt-rich crusts near the island are located at a depth of 800 to 2,400 meters, so mining requires advanced technology.
As for mining sites, the government will select several candidate areas within the island’s EEZ by fiscal 2022, research the amount of minerals by using sound wave surveys and unmanned submersibles, and narrow down the spots where high profitability is expected.
Construction of a port is underway at Minamitorishima and scheduled to be completed in fiscal 2022. As 8,000-ton ships will be able to call there, the government is considering using the port as a base for transporting mined minerals.
In July 2019, China signed a contract with the International Seabed Authority to conduct explorations in an about 70,000-square-kilometer area southeast of the island. Its target sea areas are on the high seas, but some of the areas are adjacent to Japan’s EEZ.
The Japanese government plans to also include the high seas in potential mining sites and select candidate sites by the end of 2023. Japan hopes to protect its rights to seabed resources by having a lead against China in mining technology.