Supply of critical rare earth elements about to expand

Mines that harvest rare earth elements are in demand

By Kerry Davis, IDG News Service |  Government, rare earth elements

Seventeen elements on the periodic table of elements are considered rare earth, including neodymium and terbium. Molycorp mines 10 of the rare-earth elements by hauling ore-laden rocks from the ground, crushing them, and then chemically extracting the elements.

"Molycorp picked it up pretty quickly and really developed the mine," said Keith Long, a mineral economist and geologist with USGS, who believes Molycorp is a pioneer in the technology to extract rare-earth elements.

Molycorp remained a big player in the global market even as it competed for the lowest price with China, according to Long.

"Starting in the 1980s, China was able to start taking over the rare-earth market, which it was able to do because its mining industry is at a primitive, low-cost model," he said.

A large, open earth pit that looks like the impression an upside-down pyramid would make sits in the midst of the desert at Mountain Pass. Trucks that can hold up to 75 metric tons of dirt carefully wind past other trucks, hugging the sides of the boxy pit walls.

The pit is about 150 meters deep. The scale makes workers' trucks, parked near the top of the pit, look like children's toy cars.

There is a small pool of water in the center of the pit, but the trucks are driven to one of the sides, where earth is pushed into the beds of the trucks, then driven back out. The pit is being expanded and prepared to harvest ore, where a likely looking deposit for heavy concentration of rare-earth minerals has been flagged with a large orange "X."

Molycorp is in phase one of its reopening, and employees are proud to take reporters around the 2,222-acre facility, where new buildings are going up in all directions. Molycorp is building a combined heat and power plant, a wastewater recycling center, a rock cracking and chemical leeching facility, and a post-processing facility for the waste rock processing and storage facility.

Molycorp is about to have company, which its CEO says is welcome. An Australian rare-earth metals mine owned by Lynas is set to open by the end of 2011, according to information on its website.

There are nine bills before the U.S. Congress now, relating to either finding more rare-earth minerals, protecting rare-earth elements for munitions supplies or recycling electronic components that have rare-earth elements inside them.

And the U.S. Department of Defense released a report last month saying the U.S. is too dependent on Chinese rare-earth minerals.

"It is essential that a stable non-Chinese source of REO [rare-earth oxides] be established so that the U.S. RE supply chain is no longer solely dependent on China's RE exports," the report states.

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