Image: BMacZero, Public Domain
More a Market Phenomenon than a Geological Problem
Rare earth elements (which aren't as rare as their name implies) are essential components for the manufacturing of many things, including electric vehicles and wind turbines. As you can see in the graph above, China became the dominant producer during the 1990s, not because other countries ran out of rare earth elements, but because it was cheaper to get them from China than produce them at home. This worked out fine for a while, until China started restricting the export of these elements. Seizing the opportunity, Molycorp has decided to restart production at a mine in Mountain Pass, California, which was closed in 2002.
Photo: USDA, Public domain
The mine is a 50-acre open pit about 50 miles outside Las Vegas.
China currently has a lock on the market for rare earth materials: in 2009 it provided 95 percent of the world's supply, or 120,000 tons. This concentration of supply has become a major issue in recent months, particularly after China temporarily blocked exports of these materials to Japan in September.
With that context, it's not really surprising to see that Hitachi Metals is partnering with Molycorp. Japan doesn't want to be totally dependent on China, especially since it has a large number of high-tech manufacturers that are especially dependent on rare earth elements.
Photo: Flickr, CC
If all goes according to plan, the mine could be producing 20,000 tons of rare earth elements by 2012, and up to 40,000 tons/year after that. The company claims that its new processing techniques are more environmentally-friendly than those that were used there previously, but there's always a danger of greenwashing, so we'll definitely keep an eye on that.
Via Technology Review
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