While US numbers are fewer than China’s, there are substantial rare earth deposits in the lower U.S. and Alaska. But rare earth mining may have environmental implications not to mention the long process of obtaining mining permits cast doubts on the near-term ability of the U.S. to develop the volume of rare earths needed for domestic demand. Proposed solutions include increasing recycling of rare earths from existing products and equipment, developing substitutes to rare earths, and forming partnerships between government, industry, and multiple nations to reduce the risk of dependence on one foreign source.
There has been strong congressional interest in improving the reliability of sources of rare earths, which are often discussed in the context of a larger family of elements called critical materials. In the current legislative session, no less than ten bills intended in whole or in part to improve the U.S. position regarding critical materials have been introduced. Congressional leaders have also convened multiple hearings to solicit input from government agencies and the industrial community on the value of the bills.
What Are Rare Earths?
Rare earths comprise 15 elements that range in atomic number from 57 (lanthanum) to 71 (lutetium) on the periodic table. These elements are also commonly referred to as lanthanides. Yttrium (atomic number = 39) is also included with the rare earth group because it shares chemical and physical similarities with the lanthanides. Most of the rare earths are not rare at all. The estimated average concentration of the rare earth elements in the earth’s crust, which ranges from around 150 to 220 parts per million, exceeds that of many other metals that are mined on an industrial scale, such as copper (55 parts per million) and zinc (70 parts per million). However, unlike most commercially mined base and precious metals, rare earths are rarely concentrated into mineable ore deposits.
Qualities of rare earths include high electrical conductivity, strength, luminescence, and magnetism — properties that are critical in the manufacture of high-technology and clean-energy products, including computer hard drives, compact fluorescent light bulbs, magnets used in electric vehicle motors, and wind-power equipment. Rare earths are also essential in a wide range of defense technologies, including missile guidance and control systems, lasers, radar, sonar, and optical equipment.
According to a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), from the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States was the leader in global production of rare earths. Since that time, processing and manufacturing of the world’s supply of rare earths and downstream value-added forms such as metals, alloys, and magnets have shifted almost entirely to China, due in part to lower labor costs and less stringent environmental standards. Today, the U.S. lacks rare earth mine production, and almost entirely lacks the refining, fabricating, and alloying capacity to process rare earths.
According to an April 2010 report by the Governmental Accountability Office, in 2009 China produced:
- 97 percent of rare earth ore.
- 97 percent of rare earth oxides.
- 89 percent of rare earth alloys.
- 75 percent of neodymium iron boron magnets.
- 60 percent of samarium cobalt magnets.
Right now the major U.S. activity in producing rare earths is being conducted by Molycorp, Inc., a U.S. company that plans to begin mining rare earths in 2012 in Mountain Pass, California. In December 2010, Molycorp announced that it had received the last of several environmental permits needed to proceed with the project. The company indicated that four permits were required from the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Department of Health Services, Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the California Department of Fish and Game. Other working “relationships” that helped move the project along involved officials across California’s state government, the National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The success of Molycorp in obtaining exploration and mining permits is not endemic to the U.S. critical materials sector, according to Jim Engdahl, president and CEO of Great Western Minerals Group. In testimony before the House Natural Resource Committee, Engdahl noted that companies faced major delays in obtaining permits and do not know what they have to do to compress the time frame.
“While many exploration companies and mining interests are quick to decry the arduous and often decade-long permitting process, few of these companies can provide a comprehensive list of the reasons for delay,” Engdahl told lawmakers. “This lack of a detailed framework for reform prevents companies from expediting their applications.”
The availability of rare earths is complicated by other factors that create an overall risk associated with commercialization. In addition to geopolitics, high risk can be caused by forces such as supply dynamics, price volatility, and co-production. “Once an element is identified as high-risk, a comprehensive strategy is developed to reduce this risk,” Steven J. Duclos, a chief scientist and manager with GE Global Research, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Such a strategy can include improvements in the supply chain and manufacturing efficiency as well research and development involving substitute or new materials and recycling.