Colorado-based Molycorp says it’s reopening its Mountain Pass mine in California. Their aim is to product as much as 20,000 tons of rare earth elements (REEs). This would constitute about 20% of China’s output and help the US become less dependent on China for the REEs. While REEs are not truly rare, they are hard to extract. China pretty much has the monopoly on REEs, enjoying the fact that over 90 percent of rare earths are mined and processed there.
California Mine Opening to Help REE Dependence
Relying on China for these REEs is troublesome. Last fall, China warned that it was considering an export limitation for REEs (Rare Earth Elements). This could seriously hamper the US technology industry as many of our techno-gadgets as well as US military weaponry is dependent on REEs. With Molycorp reopening its California mine, some of our fears are reduced. According to an article by Emma Woollacott, TGDaily, “Molycorp signed joint venture agreements with Hitachi Metals for the manufacture of neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) alloys and magnets. ” Woollacott also states that “Colorado-based Molycorp is the only rare earth oxide producer in the western hemisphere, but currently only produces around 3,000 metric tons of commercial rare earth materials per year. The new mine and processing facility will increase this amount seven-fold over the next two years, producing high-purity oxides, metals, alloys, and permanent magnets. ”
“These joint ventures are an integral part of Molycorp’s ‘mine-to-magnets’ business plan, and they move our Company and the United States one step closer to realizing the strategic goal of re-establishing a complete rare earth manufacturing supply chain in the US, ” said Mark Smith, Molycorp’s CEO.
It could take 15 years for the US to get out from under China’s monopoly. The DOE says that it could take the United States 15 years to develop enough other sources of rare earth minerals to wean itself away from China. Many industries, such as such as hybrid and electric vehicles, electric bicycles, wind turbines, car batteries, and other ‘green’ applications, rely on REE production. According to an article by Lilian Luca, MineWeb, “Other common applications of REEs include as catalysts in oil refinement and as an aid for the cleaner burning of fuel in automobiles, lasers, pigments, superconductors, medical imaging devices, as well as in a range of other metallurgical and nuclear applications. ” With such booming industries creating a large demand for REEs, it is certain that we will have to develop sources other than China. Luckily Australia has discovered large amounts of these mineral deposits.
We will have to keep a close eye on the development of REEs mining. Apparently our lifestyle here in the US is tied very closely to the global supply of REEs. Have you given any thought to what being dependent on China for technology may mean? It’s a scary thought.