Published on July 25th, 2017 | By: April Gocha, PhD0
Could closed rare earth mining facility become America’s newest national lab?Published on July 25th, 2017 | By: April Gocha, PhD
[Image above] Google satellite view of the closed Mountain Pass mining facility. Credit: Tom Brandt; Flickr CC BY 2.0
Rare earths are a group of 17 elements that are indispensable to today’s—and tomorrow’s—tech, including batteries, hybrid electric cars, smartphones, military hardware, and so much more.
Despite their name, rare-earth elements are relatively plentiful here on earth. However, they’re not found in pure deposits—the elements have to be mined from compound mixtures and extracted before use. And those extraction processes come with high environmental and occupational hazards that translate into high production costs.
Keeping those costs low is key to competitive supply of rare earths, and it’s something that China is so adept at that the country provides more than 85% of the global supply.
And although global rare earth production dipped 3.1% from 2015–2016 due to excess global supply, the demand for rare earth elements is only expected to increase over the coming years.
In fact, an Adamas Intelligence report predicts that rare earth demand will continue its upward trajectory to such a degree that China’s demand will outgrow its production, leading the country to invest in foreign resources and become a significant importer of rare earths.
Despite institutions in the United States like the Critical Materials Institute—which “focuses on technologies that make better use of materials and eliminate the need for materials that are subject to supply disruptions”—the U.S. no longer produces its own domestic supply of rare earths.
It’s on the DOE’s radar, however—the department announced just last month that it’s investing $6.9 million into research on producing rare earths from coal and on rare earth separation and extraction processes.
But production of rare earths from domestic mines remains at zero.
The CEO of advanced materials manufacturing company American Elements wants that to change—and he wants the government to get involved.
According to a Bloomberg Politics article, American Elements CEO Michael Silver recently met with White House officials to vie for the government to nationalize the U.S.’s last remaining rare earth mine.
The Mountain Pass, Calif., mine was once owned and operated by American mining corporation Molycorp Inc., which filed for bankruptcy in 2015 because the company was no longer able to compete with low Chinese prices.
Just last year, Molycorp emerged from bankruptcy as newly named company Neo Performance Materials, although the Mountain Pass mine itself was still under separate bankruptcy. Following a lengthy fight for assets, the mine was recently sold to MP Mine Operations LLC.
And this may be the first hint of that projected Chinese investment in foreign rare earth endeavors—MP may have ties to the Chinese government.
But Silver proposed during his meeting with White House officials that the government should use eminent domain to take Mountain Pass to revitalize domestic rare earth production.
“The mine should be converted to a national laboratory ‘dedicated to rebuilding America’s rare-earth mining industry so the world knows it is safe to build high-tech manufacturing plants in the U.S.,’ Silver said,” according to the Bloomberg Politics article.
According to Silver, commercial investment isn’t viable because the mine won’t be able to compete with Chinese producers.
“The perception is the only place in the world you can go for reasonably priced rare earth materials for your product is in China,” Silver says in the article. “You have to change that perception.”
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