PHILLIP Paulwell is insisting that Jamaica's foray into commercial production of rare earth metals is much more than dollars and cents.
'Since we made the initial announcement to the Parliament and Jamaica, two weeks ago, most of the attention attracted both locally and internationally has focused on the dollars and cents and the economic opportunity, but the project means much more,' Paulwell, the science, technology, energy, and mining minister said yesterday.
He was speaking at a ground-breaking ceremony for a US$3-million pilot plant on the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) premises at Hope Gardens in St Andrew.
The pilot is being undertaken in partnership with researchers from Japanese company Nippon Light Metal Company Limited — a publicly traded aluminium supplier headquartered in Tokyo with annual revenues of over US$7 billion and more than 10,000 employees.
Nippon has confirmed high concentrations of rare earth elements in Jamaica's red mud deposits, and that those elements can be extracted efficiently.
Yesterday, Paulwell said that there is the prospect of great financial and strategic benefit to both nations, and that Jamaica stands to gain much more from working with Japan.
He said the project was the realisation of work done by Jamaican scientists who have been on the cutting edge of research on the area for years.
"We expect that all the various learning institutions will participate completely in the unfolding of this project," Paulwell said, adding that, while a planned three-storey, US$3 million building will be erected over three months, some of the preliminary work will be done by the JBI at its labs.
"All the equipment that is needed is either here or on the high seas, that's what we mean by being serious about doing business and getting things done in a timely way," he said in noting the three-month construction deadline.
Also addressing the ceremony, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said the development is the second step to the establishment of a commercial plant to extract sediments which, if realised, will add significant value to the Jamaican economy.
"One indicator of the potential and significance of this public/private partnership is the vast levels of publicity and interest this news has generated globally. The JBI has been flooded with calls and enquiries, mainly because rare earth metals are critically important to industries, and commercial supplies are relatively scarce to some industries," Simpson Miller said.
"I believe we must balance the books, because it is very important, but at the same time we must balance people's lives. We can only do that if we have a strong economic foundation," she said, noting that "a critical part of that foundation is research and development but also innovation".
Said the prime minister: "This project will employ scientists and engineers, and we do have in Jamaica excellent scientists and engineers. Our universities need now to be more focused on training specialist students to take up jobs in fields associated with technology."
She said Jamaica will continue to look to the East, while building its ties with the West.
"We are standing on the threshold of something that could be truly revolutionary," she said, while emphasising that every care will be taken to protect the environment during the process.
"I am absolutely committed to the development of our economy, but it cannot be at the expense of the environment... I have made it clear to the Cabinet that every care must be taken as we seek to commercially exploit our rare earth elements," the prime minister said.
Rare earth metals are used in the creation of DVDs, cellphones, rechargeable batteries, digital cameras and most optic lenses, among other things.