Radioactive Mountain Yields Rare-Earth Digs

Bokan Mountain in Southeast Alaska is the proposed site of a heavy rare earth element mine.
Susan Karl, USGS

Red state or blue state, liberal or libertarian, Americans share an addiction to rare-earth elements imported from China.

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Green technologies such as electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels and fluorescent light bulbs rely on rare-earth metals. The military depends on rare earths for guided missile systems, satellites and unmanned drones. NASA's spacecraft carry powerful rare earth magnets to Mars and outer space. The magnets also miniaturized iPads, computers and high-tech headphones.

China controls 95 percent of the world's rare-earth supply. The key to this monopoly isn't an abundance of rare-earth deposits, but its expertise in processing ore into oxides and pure metal. The ore tends to carry uranium and thorium, the most radioactive element on the planet, and extracting the metal is typically a long, multistage process involving toxic chemicals.

"We know where the deposits are. Having them end up in your iPhone is not a straight or simple process," said Brad Van Gosen, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Denver.

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A few years ago, China showed its power, and cut the supply of rare earths to a trickle. The move sent the United States and other countries scrambling to end their reliance on China. Prices soared, drawing new investors and mining companies into the rare earth market. Now, the United States has one new mine nearly finished and two more in the permitting stages. But the crucial element in escaping China's rare-earth rule isn't new mines, it's rebuilding the expertise and infrastructure to process the finicky metals, experts say.

Price war

In 2010, China spiked the cost of rare-earth elements when it started restricting exports and charging foreign companies higher prices. The price bubble sparked a worldwide frenzy to escape China's control. A new Australian-owned processing plant just opened in Malaysia. Others are planned in Canada, Europe and Africa. Several companies are also trying to develop an American supply for rare earths, some with support from the Department of Defense. (Infographic: Energy-Critical Elements to Watch)

"The rare earths are very much strategic metals, and particularly very much of strategic importance to the defense industry," said Curt Freeman, president of Avalon Development Corp. in Fairbanks, Alaska, a mining consulting firm. "There's a queasy feeling in Congress and the Department of Defense," he said.

In the United States, California's Mountain Pass mine reopened in 2010 and is expected to start producing light rare-earth elements this year. The mine was once the world's biggest producers of rare earths, but shut down in 2002 because of environmental problems and falling prices. Another mine is proposed in Wyoming, by Canadian company Rare Element Resources, but faces opposition from local residents.

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