Rare-earth prices were sky-high thanks to Chinese market manipulation; in Washington, politicians were backing domestic production to the hilt; and investors were bullish. Each is vital to modern digital or energy technology. The U. This then is a story of comprehensive failure — but not the obvious one.
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Rare-earth prices were sky-high thanks to Chinese market manipulation; in Washington, politicians were backing domestic production to the hilt; and investors were bullish.
Each is vital to modern digital or energy technology. The U. This then is a story of comprehensive failure — but not the obvious one. It should be seen as a warning.
Update, June Molycorp has announced it will postpone its shareholders meeting from June 25 to some time later this year. Update, Aug. Every Sunday at 7 p. But on March 22, most of them were met by a surprise: Instead of the calmly authoritative voices of Morley Safer, Leslie Stahl and the rest of the crew, they encountered the verbal fireworks of basketball announcers.
Called the rare-earth elements, they are key to the production of electric cars, LED bulbs, smartphones, wind turbines and aerospace equipment. The segment was good television. It was good politics — Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski cited it the next morning in a call for more federal support of mining. But it was not good journalism. Modern life, or at least its smooth functioning, does depend on rare-earth elements.
No American manufacturer or defense contractor — not even the Pentagon itself — has ever indicated supply problems.
Moreover, more than half of rare earths are simply used as catalysts in petroleum refining; most of the rest go into cars, digital devices and lighting. And the rest of the world is happy to sell America as much oil, autos and gadgetry as it wants. More broadly, modern life depends on the energy-critical elements, or ECEs.
In addition to the rare earths, they include the familiar metal lithium, used in the batteries that power phones, laptops and hybrid cars; the obscure metal rhenium, which strengthens the turbine blades of latest-generation, super-efficient jet engines; and vanadium, employed in megawatt-capacity batteries that help rationalize the variable output of wind farms and other zero-emission electricity sources.
On paper at least, the Western half of the United States has rich deposits of these elements, and given that global demand for ECEs is generally rising, communities from Alaska to Wyoming to Texas are filled with the hope that a new mining boom is just around the corner.
Among politicians and executives concerned with domestic mineral resources, the same facts have led to two broad strains of thought. One is optimistic —— innovation-focused, investor-oriented and extensively and too often ingenuously championed by the tech media. Because the U. John Gurzinski The other strain of thought is more pessimistic, and typified by the 60 Minutes report. Their solution is predictable: Deregulate and subsidize the mining industry.
And both believe that the West is just the stroke of a pen away from yet another resource boom. Dispassionate assessment, however, reveals a bleak picture. Several of the most-hyped newcomers to American ECE extraction have quietly closed up shop in recent months, and many others — including Mountain Pass — are confronting skeptical investors and uncertain futures.
Over the past five years, numerous nations have brought new ECE supplies to market, eliminating most threats of monopoly control. The brief Chinese monopoly on rare-earth elements has long since been broken. Mining industry analysts see little evidence that the market will fuel a burst of American ECE production, and little reason to believe that one could or should be ignited through policy. In short, a new American mining boom is nowhere in the cards, and the global nature of ECE production means that neither Silicon Valley nor Washington, D.
The Intermountain West, whose mines supplied the raw materials for every economic revolution of the 20th century — copper for electrification, coal for industrialization, uranium for the Atomic Age — faces something completely unexpected in the green and digital 21st: the prospect of a comprehensive bust.
I visited in April on a rare rainy day; desert-bound and drought-struck, the mine is usually baked by the sun. Not much to look at — few mines are — Mountain Pass is also not much to walk across. About people work there. At some point, I remarked that every mine office seems to share the same style; call it Extraction Modern. Sims laughed. The Mountain Pass rare-earth deposit, Sims explained, was discovered in , when exploratory geologists sent a curious rock sample to the U.
Geological Survey. They were hoping it contained uranium, which it did, along with thorium, though both in very low concentrations. It also contained rare-earth elements — in quite extraordinary amounts. Concentration in the original sample area topped 40 percent. Further exploration revealed a book-shaped ore body sloping into the earth, with an average 8 percent concentration in the easily accessed portion.
For comparison, copper ore is generally economically viable at 0. By any measure, this was rich stuff. The problem was that nobody had much use for it in The rare earths are a tight-knit family of 17 elements. Fifteen of them fill out a single row near the bottom of the periodic table; two others, higher up, complete the total. All feature an outer shell containing two electrons, which helps account for their similar and curious chemical properties. They tend to be magnetic, and they tend to phosphoresce — to give off light or other forms of electromagnetic radiation — when bombarded with subatomic particles or charged with electricity.
Geologically, they travel in a pack: Where one is found, all are found. Sixteen of these elements are not even particularly rare; proven reserves alone are in the millions of tons. Mountain Pass has one of the best deposits of rare earths on the planet. The founders of Mountain Pass got by in the s by supplying the defense and scientific communities with oddments for general research.
Then, in the early s, everything changed: A compound containing europium was found to emit a brilliant red light when bombarded with electrons. Almost overnight, it turned early color TVs from muddy affairs into Technicolor wonders, and Mountain Pass, which contains europium in abundance, became a figurative gold mine.
Over the next four decades, the mine flourished as uses were found for other rare earths: in medical scanners, lasers, and especially in fluorescent lights and microchips. Individual bulbs and chips used micrograms of rare earths. Multiplied by the billions, they used kilotons. Sims and I toured the facilities in his black SUV. At the very top of the mine, a crusher reduced chunks of ore to pea-sized gravel.
A humming conveyor belt transferred the peas to a warehouse, where a spinning, barrel-shaped ball mill, loaded with iron spheres, pounded them to fine powder. Hissing compressors squeezed the powder into dry, crumbly cakes. Beyond that lay alchemical mystery: The cakes vanished into the processing facilities, where, hidden inside various proprietary acid vats and solvent extractors, the ore was slowly dissected into its constituent rare-earth oxides.
After the raw outside air, the warehouse was pleasantly warm. It was also thunderously loud, so when I tried to thank the mill operator for his comfortable reception, I had to bellow my gratitude. He smiled. The building, he yelled back, has a brand-new ventilation system that keeps it comfortable year-round. In the old days, the humidity sometimes got so bad that in summer, the warehouse filled with fog. Winter was worse: On really cold days, it snowed indoors.
The real surprise, though, was that there was anything brand-new at Mountain Pass. The constant noise and bustle made it hard to imagine, but for most of the past 15 years, there was nothing happening at the mine at all. John Gurzinski Beginning in the early s, after 30 years of unchallenged domination of the rare-earth market, Mountain Pass ran into difficulties.
Repeated spills from its wastewater pipelines contaminated the Mojave National Preserve — a vast saltbush-and-saltpan wilderness, home to the endangered desert tortoise — with small amounts of lead and trace amounts of radioactive barium, uranium and thorium. In , federal and state authorities brought legal action against Molycorp. Environmentally, rare-earth mining is generally low-impact. Extraction is chemical, not thermal — no fuel-hungry furnaces — and the chemicals involved are easily neutralized or contained: common acids and bases, water and oils.
The chief concern is the trace amounts of mildly radioactive elements that occur in all rare-earth deposits. Modern best practices contain these effectively, and Westernized nations and, increasingly, the Chinese government enforce these practices. About the time that Molycorp ran into trouble, China initiated a state program to develop its own extensive rare-earth deposits.
For the first time, Mountain Pass faced serious competition. In , battered by unfavorable prices and threatened by huge cleanup costs, Molycorp shut down the processing facilities. The excavation and concentration of ore continued for a few more years, but in , Mountain Pass shut down entirely.
Click to view larger. Meanwhile, Chinese production boomed, bolstered by demand from two new technologies: LED light bulbs and, especially, the small but powerful magnets found in hard drives, smartphones and the generators of hybrid vehicles and wind turbines.
And so things might have continued, but then China, with 97 percent control of the rare-earth market, did the one thing that could change the situation: It deliberately sent prices into the stratosphere. In , it announced export controls on its rare earths, cutting them by 40 percent. Then, in September , a Japanese naval vessel interdicted a Chinese fishing boat near the disputed Senkaku Islands and arrested its captain. The islands are little more than rocks, and the dispute had more to do with historic Sino-Japanese conflicts than modern state interests.
Still, the Chinese government responded ferociously. It ceased all exports of rare-earth elements to Japan, a lighting and automotive powerhouse. The market for rare earths panicked, and prices spiked as much as 2, percent. But that is pretty much where the popular narrative on rare earths ended. Of course, the mining industry sprang into action, and back-page stories soon noted the consequence of high prices: increased supply.
In December , just two months after the naval incident, Mountain Pass began processing ore again. The new Mountain Pass opened in Among other improvements, Sims emphasized its closed-loop water system and encapsulated, dry tailings impoundment, which eliminate the chance of further wastewater spills.
Arashisar Nuclear batteriesluminous paint. Due to their chemical similarity, the concentrations of rare earths in rocks are only slowly changed by geochemical processes, making their proportions useful for geochronology and dating fossils. China has officially cited resource depletion and environmental concerns as the reasons for a nationwide crackdown on its rare-earth mineral production sector. In Mayafter the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasterwidespread protests took place in Kuantan over the Lynas refinery and radioactive waste from it. Be the first to review this item Amazon Bestsellers Rank: Adding to potential mine sites, ASX listed Peak Resources announced in Februarythat their Tanzanian-based Ngualla project contained not only the 6th largest deposit by tonnage outside of China, but also the highest grade of rare-earth elements of the 6.
EARTH MATERIALS HEFFERNAN PDF
Why rare-earth mining in the West is a bust