In bid to challenge China, U.S. revives rare earth element production

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.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

In a bid to challenge China's global domination of the production of rare earth elements, American company Molycorpannounced 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

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