By Andrew Nusca
Posting in Energy
China controls 95 percent of global rare earth element production. But American firm Molycorp sees promise in reopening a mine near Las Vegas -- with a little help from Japan.
In a bid to challenge China's global domination of the production of rare earth elements, American company Molycorp announced last week that it has secured permits to restart production at a mine in Mountain Pass, Calif.
The site will become the first U.S. source of rare earth elements in more than a decade, and is a hedge against China's stunning 95 percent share of the world's supply, at about 120,000 tons. (That imbalance has led to some political tension with neighbor and rival Japan.)
So it's no surprise, then, that the company on Tuesday also announced a partnership with Japanese industrial conglomerate Hitachi to produce rare earth alloys and magnets in the U.S.
Of interest: neodymium-iron-boron, or NdFeB, alloys and magnets that are used for clean energy (wind turbines), automotive (hybrid cars), computer (batteries), healthcare (medical imaging) and telecommunications (smartphones) applications.
Those many uses for rare earth elements is exactly why they are so important. In that way, the materials are the building block for technological advancement, keys to functioning electronic hardware.
As such, worldwide demand for the elements is only increasing. In 2010, demand reached 125,000 tons; it's expected to grow to 225,000 tons by 2015.
Despite its importance, the Molycorp mine is not much to look at. It's a 50-acre open pit in the desert, approximately 50 miles from Las Vegas.
But work is already underway. Katherine Bourzac at Technology Review reports:
Molycorp has begun draining groundwater that seeps into the bottom of the pit and removing areas of rock called "overburden" to expose a layer of bastnäsite, a mineral rich in rare earth elements. Expansion of operations will push the mine from a depth of 500 feet to 1,000 feet in the coming years.
The Mountain Pass mine used to be the world's biggest supplier of rare earth elements, but it was closed in 2004, the victim of lower prices by Chinese suppliers, who produce them as a by-product of iron mining.
The reopened mine is expected to produce 20,000 tons of the stuff by 2012 -- enough to meet current demand in the U.S. Its permits allow for double that.
There's one catch, though: even if the U.S. achieves rare earth element independence, it can't make the products that use them.
As Bourzac points out in her report, no American company currently has the technological capacity or the intellectual property licenses to make neodymium magnets.
Hence the Hitachi partnership.
Illustration: Michael Diggles/Wikipedia
Related on SmartPlanet:
- China, Japan tussle over rare earth minerals; hybrid cars, solar panels, wind turbines at stake
- China bans rare earth exports to U.S.
- Obama administration digs into China's 'rare earth' monopoly
- The U.S. is sitting on a rare earth stockpile. Can it help against growing tech demand and a looming shortage?
Dec 22, 2010
"Despite its importance, the Molycorp mine is not much to look at. It?s a 50-acre open pit in the desert,..." What an ignorant statement that has nothing to do with the gist of the article. "There?s one catch, though: even if the U.S. achieves rare earth element independence, it can?t make the products that use them." Doesn't someone see the danger of this ridiculous industrial policy that we've been pursuing for the last 30 years or so? China positioned itself as a cheap source of industrial labor so that short-term, oblivious capitalists would give it the technology it needed to modernize, for free. The US also gave China "most favored nation" trading status, making sure that the stuff they make would be cheaper than ours. By tying its money to ours, they manipulated prices so that it was cheaper for us to buy our commodities from them, too. Doing this destroyed the manufacturing and mining capacity of this country. They gave us all the rope we needed to hang ourselves. NOW, they are tightening the noose, ever so slightly. Two yanks in, one yank out. We won't notice until we pass out.
I am sure we have the intelligence here to do it. I myself know people with great skill in metallurgy, but they are extremely tired and frustrated with our economic system. What our problem is that we have too much wealth in the hands of people who have no ability to build anything but do control vast amounts of resources... and too little money in the hands of scientists and engineers. Much of the wealth in this country is now inherited and not earned. Or with our lottery based economy, a person who got lucky on a few stocks is a multimillionaire, and a Phd candidate in physics is struggling to find a job....and our society worships the rich man and thinks the physics major is dumb for trying. And we wonder why we are getting stupider every day. It is our infatuation with money and the rich at the expense of of science and intelligence. We have an economy where lottery winners are telling PhD scientists how to do their job and paying them less than truck drivers... I myself am owed $5000 from the 3rd generation factory owner who thinks I should be willing to accept the same wages as the rest of his employees while I make him a 3 dimensional laser scanner.....and he on the other hand buys a new mansion in the country.....and is investing to become a slum lord...cuz it's easier money.
sboverie@, although I agree that manufacturing will do far more to stimulate our economy than anything the government can do, our tax code remains hostile to long-term investment, the administration of our environmental discourage processing and manufacturing. China will continue to make sacrifices that we are not willing to make environmentally, and it's not possible to compete with that.
It is good that the US is starting to mine rare earths; but I am surprised that there is no company with the technological or intellectual property licenses to process the earths into products. My country sure has fallen from the old reputation for "Yankee ingenuity." I hope that more manufacturing will be brought back to the US. More factories will help stimulate the economy in ways that the banks will not.