A joint project between Japan and Jamaica will investigate whether the Caribbean country’s bauxite waste will be able to yield rare-earth elements that are used in consumer electronics. Japanese company Nippon Light Metal invested $3 million for a new processing plant, breaking ground in St. Andrew, Jamaica, on Monday.
“This project represents the kind of industrial diversification that this country needs, if it is to realize its economic potential and improve the living standards of the people,” Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said, speaking to a group of Japanese and Jamaican officials and researchers. Miller suggested that the plant could be one of the most “significant projects ever undertaken in Jamaica,” should it prove beneficial.
The project will call for the acid treatment of tons of the dry, red mud found near Jamaica’s mining areas to see if rare-earth elements can be extracted. Rare earth is considered a non-renewable natural resource comprised of a group of 17 chemical elements. The material is used in the manufacturing process of consumer electronics such as smartphones and plasma screens, as well as larger equipment such as satellites.
Researchers at the Jamaica Bauxite Institute believe that the bauxite could provide an easily harvested natural resource for the country, as international demand for rare-earth increases. CTV News reports that institute Chairman Parris Lyew-Ayee said that because the substance is located in containment ponds, it will prevent stress on the environment. Local environmentalists aren’t as quick to support Lyew-Ayee’s belief.
“Specifically, we have requested details of the precise type of process that will be used … before I can really comment on what the environmental impacts are,” Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, told the Observer.
Any rare-earth minerals extracted at the plant would be jointly owned by Jamaica and Nippon Light Metal. Japanese companies have launched similar projects in Kazakhstan and Vietnam, and continue to explore alternative sources for rare-earth elements.