California to Mine Rare Earth Materials Again

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Last year, the renewable energy world reeled with the news that China was clamping down on its exports of rare earth materials. The entire world needs rare earth materials to make the wind turbines and the electric cars that spell freedom from fossil fuels.

It was widely thought that it would take at least a decade for the relatively few rare earth mines around the world to get back into production, by which time oil would be yet another decade scarcer than it is now.

In response to that Chinese clampdown, Japan, and now California have rushed to reopen rare earth mines that were long ago priced out of the market by China’s cheaper rare earth supply.

Molycorp’s rare earth mine near California’s border town of Mountain Pass has received fast-tracked permitting from the Obama administration to reopen its mine, and it should be back in production in record time, just about a year from now.

With an investment of $500 million, Molycorp is returning the mine to operational, and by 2012, Mountain Pass is projected to be capable of delivering around 20,000 tons of rare earth materials per year. The world will need 200,000 tons of rare earth elements by 2014.

The Mountain Pass mine was once the world’s dominant producer of 15 rare earth elements – back before the development of the new technologies that now puts these materials in such high demand.

California has a world class deposit of metals that are needed to make the high-strength magnets necessary for electric vehicle engines, wind turbines, and a variety of other high-tech products.

The associated minerals in the region include Calcite, Barite and Dolomite, and the metals to be mined include Yttrium, Cerium and Lanthanum (additives in diesel fuel), Europium (needed in CFLs) and Neodymium (magnets in wind turbines and electric vehicles).

Uranium prospectors stumbled on the site in the 1940s, because rare earths are naturally mildly radioactive. Mining there began in 1952, but at that time environmental regulation was lax, and the mine had some serious environmental spills over the next two decades, under the previous ownership (Unocal and Chevron).

Since 2000, the new mine operator Molycorp has invested about $20.1 million in lined evaporation ponds, reclamation of old ponds and other efforts to protect or clean up the environment, and an additional $2.4 million a year to meet environmental regulations, including regular groundwater testing.

While the environmental issues must be solved, these rare metals are also the key to moving to a safe climate future free of fossil fuels. California’s mandate to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the current administration’s huge Recovery Act investment in building a long term low carbon economy requires new energy technologies that need rare earth elements.

More attention to environmental problems is needed. Molycorp CEO Mark Smith plans a different kind of mining in a new age of environmental awareness.  “I don’t want to produce another pound of product if we don’t do it right environmentally. That’s how serious we are,” Smith said. “We don’t want to be just environmentally compliant; we want to be environmentally superior.”

Mining these rare earths is one step. However, the US still does not have the technology to manufacture the neodymium-iron-boron alloy necessary for the production of turbines and electric cars.

The Obama administration had begun to change that. There was a provision in The Recovery Act to encourage the development of this kind of new energy manufacturing with $2.5 billion in 30% tax credits under Section 48C. However, Republicans killed its extension beyond this year during negotiation for the tax bill.

So Molycorp has partnered with Japan’s Hitachi Metals to begin to manufacture the magnets in the United States.

Image: Jónína Óskarsdóttir

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