Mojave Desert mine could help reduce dependency on rare earth imports

Posted by Lydia Leavitt

Demand for rare earth metals in high-tech products is higher than ever, as they are used in everything from smartphones to missiles. Indeed, the price of some rare earth elements skyrocketed by 500% over the last year.

China currently claims 97 percent of the rare earth market, and has recently restricted exports of the material to keep up with its rapidly expanding economy. 

Fortunately, the U.S. may have found an alternate source for rare earth metals.

Deep within California’s Mojave Desert, an hour outside of Las Vegas, American company Molycorp has begun mining at its Mountain Pass facility, a site left inactive for nearly a decade.

Miners have found 15 rare earth elements to be used in high tech products.

"The supply of rare earths predominantly comes from China, and China needs most of the rare earths they produce for their own consumption," Molycorp mine manager Rocky Smith told Fox News.

"So all of the people of the United States and Europe and Japan, they’re going to have to find another source of these valuable rare earths, and that’s one of the main reasons this operation is so important."

As an added bonus, Molycorp claims it has developed a method of extracting and processing rare earth elements in a more affordable and environmentally friendly way.

"We can now produce the same amount of product for our customers using less than half the ore we did 10 years ago, and that’s a phenomenal improvement in a very short period of time," explained CEO Mark Smith.

Rare earth elements are exactly that: rare. The Mountain Pass facility has a particularly high concentration of the materials, which makes it one in three concentrations in the world and a particularly good place to mine.

"Every ounce of rare earth that is used in anything in the Department of Defense, mission guidance systems, the night vision goggles, just as an example, every computer they use, that's all made with 100 percent Chinese rare earth material today," Smith said.

Molycorp - which is currently excavating 3,000 metric tons of the elements - hopes to increase production to 5,000 metric tons by the end of 2011 and 40,000 by the end of 2013.