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Where Next-Generation Rare Earth Metals May Come From 179

retroworks writes "Great piece in The Atlantic by Kyle Wiens of IFIXIT.org, who visited and photographed the Molycorp Mountain Pass rare earth facility in California's Mojave Desert. The mine is the only source of rare earths in North America, one of the only alternatives to the mineral cartels in China, and one of the only sources for the key metals such as tantalum needed in cell phones. There is of course actually one other source of rare earth metals in the USA — recycled cell phones. Is the best 'state of the art' mining as good as the worst state of the art recycling? If the U.S. Department of Energy subsidizes the mine, will China open the floodgates and put it out of business? Or will electronics be manufactured with alternative materials before the mine ever becomes fully scaleable?"
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Where Next-Generation Rare Earth Metals May Come From

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  • Not the only place (Score:5, Informative)

    by husker_man ( 473297 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:32PM (#39138155)
    There are rare-earth deposits in other places - like Elk City, Nebraska having resources of the rare metals [washingtontimes.com]. However, it wouldn't be much fun to be running a mine in the middle of the desert.
  • Lame article (Score:5, Informative)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:33PM (#39138163) Homepage

    Superficial article about Mountain Pass. The big problem they have is finding a place to dump the tailings. A rare earth mine needs big settling ponds. The Mountain Pass solution is that they've built a pipeline to Ivanpah Dry Lake on the Nevada border.

    The mine tailings are slightly radioactive, because the dirt in the area being mined has some uranium and thorium in it. This isn't a big deal once the water has evaporated and it's solid material again, but the water in the tailings ponds has to be kept from leaching into a water supply.

  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:52PM (#39138453) Homepage Journal

    I thought Australia was proving to be rich in rare Earch metals.

    Linky [australianrareearths.com]

  • Re:Lame article (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:53PM (#39138475)

    All the same, as someone who has recently invented a new form of energy storage that relies upon several ceramics comprised in part of rare Earth elements - and having to deal with foreign vendors for the ceramics - I can definitely say its a challenge. Virtually all rare-earth suppliers are in the Asia/Pacific area - all of them get their rare Earths from China, and China is increasingly locking down the supply (they will of course build whatever you want made out of Rare Earths at an incredibly competitive price, but if you want to buy the raw materials instead of the finished component there is a very tightly controlled channel to go through with strict limits on how much can be exported - IMO this is to get the designs of what is being built so they can control the manufacturing side). In short: all of our latest technology requires rare Earths, all foreseeable technology will require it - rare Earths are practically the new Oil, we should have our mine running ALONG WITH a strong rare Earth recycling program, possibly go further and provoke the Icelandic mines to open up as well as encourage (even buy stock from) companies in Japan readying to mine the massive supply of rare Earths on the Pacific Ocean seabed.

  • by Pope ( 17780 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:00PM (#39138561)

    The simplistic answer is that fee companies competing with state-sponsored ones is by very definition not a free market.

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:00PM (#39138563) Homepage

    Hmm. Does anyone know just how well the various resources of the United States have been mapped?

    Google comes up with fantastically interesting [usgs.gov] stuff sometimes. And it's even safe for work!

  • by mspohr ( 589790 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:09PM (#39138681)

    It seems that the second link in the summary is being ignored (by both /. and industry). The concentration of rare earth elements in used electronics (cell phones, displays, computers, etc.) is many thousand times higher than their concentrations in rare earth ores. Rather than tearing up and polluting large areas of the earth with new mining, it would seem to be much more cost efficient and easier on the environment to "mine" used electronics.

  • by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:13PM (#39138749)
    NGC here has a good article [nationalgeographic.com]. One of the issues though again is cheaper labor and lax restrictions in China. Processing rare earths is labor intensive and can generate toxic and radioactive by-products which are fare more expensive to deal with in our regulatory system from an environmental and worker safety perspective.
  • by ccool ( 628215 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:34PM (#39139013) Homepage
    There is also some deposit in Canada.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoidas_Lake [wikipedia.org]

    I have been to a conference in 2009 where the speaker was talking about a mine which would open in a few years.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @03:31PM (#39139661)

    Also in Canada:

      Misery Lake (Labrador), Ramusio Lake (Quebec), Alterra-Strange Lake (near Strange Lake in Quebec), Eden Lake in the Leaf Rapids district of Manitoba, Red Wine HREE Project in southern Labrador.


    Aktyuz Ore Field among others in Kyrgyz Republic (being mined by NA companies in collaboration with Kyrgyz companies), not to mention Sweden, Norway, and Finland among many others.

    China however controls 97% of the market. The can drive others out of business simply by lowering prices and making it economically infeasible to produce (H)REEs

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"