By Katharine Comisso – New Scientist – Published: November 19, 2010
The US has 13 million tonnes of rare earth elements but it would take years to extract them, suggests the first detailed report on the country’s supply.
“Rare earth” is an alternative name for the lanthanides – elements 57 to 71 – plus yttrium and scandium. The elements are integral to modern life, and are used in everything from disc drives, hybrid cars and sunglasses to lasers and aircraft used by the military.
China controls 97 per cent of the world’s supply and has been tightening its export quotas, sparking concerns that the rare earths could live up to their name.
Now, the US Geological Survey has looked at all known national reserves of the elements as part of a larger assessment of the threat posed to defence by limited rare earth supplies.
It found that the domestic pipeline is “rather thin”. The US boasts the third largest reserves in the world after China and the Commonwealth of Independent States, made up of nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. But the only rare earths mine the US has ever operated, at Mountain Pass, California, is currently inactive. Mining may restart there within two years, but any other mines will be far behind.
Only a handful of sites are even being explored. “Then it’s literally years before you start applying for permits to start mining or building infrastructure or putting processing facilities in place,” says Gareth Hatch of consultancy firm Technology Metals Research in Carpentersville, Illinois, who was not involved in the new report. It could be 10 years or more before any new mines open, the report suggests.
The report says one of the most promising sites is Bokan Mountain on the southernmost island of Alaska. Ucore Rare Metals has been exploring there since 2007, and the region was once home to a uranium mine, so some infrastructure is already in place, together with a deep water port. See a map of other rare earth sites in the US.
The report suggests the US might break its dependency on China’s rare earth monopoly by looking to other future suppliers of rare earths, including Australia and Canada. Australia has far fewer rare earths overall than the US, but the ore in its Mount Weld mine contain the highest concentration of the elements known anywhere in the world. Since the mine was completed in 2008, ore has been mined and is now stockpiled, ready for its rare earths to be extracted.