Renewable energy, information technology, and many other industries are in a political and economic bind—they require the obscure periodic table denizens called rare earth metals, and nearly all the world’s supply of those elements comes from China. But now, for the first time in years, rare earth elements will be mined at an American site. The mining company Molycorp says it has the permits in hand to reopen a mine in Mountain Pass, California, that could soon meet much of the U.S. demand for these elements.
The materials that come out of Mountain Pass will be used to make high-strength magnets necessary for electric vehicle engines, wind turbines, and a variety of other high-tech products. However, the U.S. possesses neither the technology nor the licensing to manufacture the neodymium-iron-boron alloy necessary for their production. As such, Molycorp has partnered with Japanese firm Hitachi Metals to manufacture the magnets in the United States. [Popular Science]
After its projected 2012 opening, the Molycorp mine should produce about 20,000 tons of material per year, the company says. Right now the world’s demand stands at about 125,000 tons per year, and Technology Review reports that this number could jump to 225,000 in five years. China has a stranglehold on the rare earth market, meaning political maelstroms could disrupt the supply.
In 2009 [China] provided 95 percent of the world’s supply, or 120,000 tons. This concentration of supply has become a major issue in recent months, particularly after China temporarily blocked exports of these materials to Japan in September. A Critical Materials Strategy document issued by the U.S. Department of Energy last week points to the “risk of supply disruption” in the short term. [Technology Review]
At one time, Mountain Pass was the biggest rare earth mine in the world; however, competition and environmental problems forced its closure in 2004. Its reopening might herald a new boom in mining these materials in the U.S.—if it’s economical to get at them.
A recent report published by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the total rare earth reserves in the United States at 1.5 million tons. But the report says it’s unclear how much of these reserves can be mined economically. The DOE report outlines a strategy of diversifying the international supply of rare earths, identifying substitute materials, and finding ways to use the materials more efficiently and recycle them. [Technology Review]
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