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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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  • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:38PM (#39138243) Journal

    Just to be clear: rare earth minerals are mined in numerous countries.
    Our problem is that China had a national strategy of buying up as many mines and refineries as it could.
    By creating a vertical *monopoly, China has made it very hard for anyone else to enter the market.

    Assuming China doesn't implode from its demographic and financial problems, there's a serious risk that China's state capitalism is going to outcompete America's free/mixed market capitalism.

    *sometimes monopolies lower prices. When this happens to a market with high start up costs, it deters anyone else from entering.

  • by trainman ( 6872 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:43PM (#39138301) Homepage

    There are also mines starting up for rare earths in the Canadian arctic. Actually, quite large deposits up there from what I've read.

  • by forkfail ( 228161 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:51PM (#39138433)

    Long before that, they'll come from Afghanistan, in all likelihood:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=afghanistan-holds-enormous-bounty-of-rare-earths [scientificamerican.com]

    (which may explain a few things...)

  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:52PM (#39138461)

    will China open the floodgates and put it out of business

    Whenever I've had conversations with libertarians about how free trade would actually work in the real world where governments frequently aggressively protect corporate interests, they always stammer "buh buh the free market will prevail." Really? You mean American companies going up against Chinese state-owned companies or companies with tacit backing from the Chinese central government aren't going to face crushing problems competing against that level of cohesion between state and corporate power? Anyone remember what happen to the Australian mining executives who were imprisoned a while back for having the audacity to negotiate hardball style with their Chinese counterparts under the mistaken premise that it was a meeting of equals?

    When this country was at its most economically free, we had high tariffs. That's an indisputable fact that no free trader can deny unless they want to argue that slavery was so heinous that it overshadows all of the economic freedom in all areas of employment, property ownership, business creation, etc. that was enjoyed in the late 18th century and most of the 19th century.

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @01:58PM (#39138523) Homepage

    However, it wouldn't be much fun to be running a mine in the middle of the desert.

    Actually, high volume / low yield mining is probably best done in a desert (if it can be done in an environmentally sane fashion anywhere). Remember, these are not high grade ores. It's not like you pick axe out a block of Yttiribilium (or however you spell these silly names). You get a pile of rocks with a bit more Yttiribilium than the surrounding rocks and then you process it into a slurry with more Yttiribilium and then it goes off and gets smelted.

    There was an interesting article somewhere suggesting that the best way to do this in terms of minimizing mining and water waste was to crush the ore, separate the rare earths using magnets and getting the concentration up to around 50%. It would then be economically feasible to haul that much smaller volume of rock to the a large, perhaps one off facility, that purified the material and dealt with the large amount of tainted water, dust and heavy metals that the refinery process entailed.

  • by eth1 ( 94901 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:06PM (#39138639)

    My first thought when I read that was that if China starts selling the stuff at insanely low prices (at a subsidized loss) to beat out domestic competition, why don't we just start buying it up and stockpiling it.

    That would give us a buffer if they decide to cut us off, and we wouldn't need to buy from them for a while if they raise the prices, which might cause them to keep underselling themselves.

  • by phrostie ( 121428 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:12PM (#39138727)

    I suspect mining landfills is going to be a major industry in the century to come.
    I wonder how you would go about looking to see who, if anyone, has been buying up mineral rights on landfills?

  • by wjcofkc ( 964165 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:12PM (#39138729)
    I have long held the idea that a future industry will be the comprehensive mining of trash dumps.
  • by ArcherB ( 796902 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:37PM (#39139061) Journal

    Whenever I've had conversations with libertarians about how free trade would actually work in the real world where governments frequently aggressively protect corporate interests, they always stammer "buh buh the free market will prevail."

    Here, let me try.

    When China subsidises it's own mines to drive prices down and force the competition out of business, our local mines will shutter and we all enjoy the benefits of rare earth minerals paid for, in part, by the Chinese taxpayer. We all win with the exception of the miners who were working at the mines. The mine owners may be forced to sell then mine to someone with enought foresight to know that the prices won't stay low forever. And they would be correct.

    Once the Chinese government thinks they have a lock on the market and raises prices, the domestic mines open back up and begin to reap the large profits from the elevated prices of these rare earth minerals. Eventually, the price will lower and stabilize once supply reaches and equalibrium with demand.

    So, yeah! The free markets will prevail. The main losers here would be the Chinese government and taxpayer who subsidized the materials that we used to build stuff and sell back to them at a profit. (Actually, they'd be the ones building it... but for Apple, who is American based)

  • Sea Floor (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rwise2112 ( 648849 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @03:18PM (#39139503)
    On the ocean floor, are large deposits of the stuff Wall Street Journal [wsj.com]
    A company called Nautilus Minerals Inc. is planning to begin operations.
  • by cusco ( 717999 ) <brian@bixby.gmail@com> on Thursday February 23, 2012 @03:29PM (#39139633)
    Local businesses have already figured out the "free market". It's called 'WalMart crushes everyone smaller', which is why anyone who appreciates the value of small and local businesses is opposed to the Libertardian policies.
  • Re:Lame article (Score:3, Interesting)

    by L3370 ( 1421413 ) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @06:28PM (#39141377)
    I've heard other discussions about rare earth mining here on /. and one factor that seemed to pop up all the time was China.

    Specifically, China being so willing to mine without much regard to pollution or contanimation. They are the biggest suppliers of it now so they can set the price. If someone were to stand up a mining operation in say...california, all China would have to do is drop their asking price or ramp up production and watch the California mine collapse in bankruptcy.

    It is my understanding that propping up a rare earth mining/refining operation requires tons of capital and an incredible amount of preparation for enviornmental concerns (at least in western nations where people don't like radioactive pools leaking into their ground water). Investors would be understandibly weary of putting money on the line when China could potentially kick the legs from under the entire enterprise.

    Hard to compete when your competitor is willing to turn their backyard into a wasteland.

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