Rare Earth Optimism

[ Posted Thursday, November 11th, 2010 – 18:53 UTC ]

I realize that today of all days I should be writing about veterans, and their contributions, and honoring their memory. If I had done so, I likely would have written about the organization Patriots' Pride, who is organizing marches and rallies today to call attention to the reality of gay veterans who have served our country's military in the past; or perhaps I would draw attention to the letter which appeared on the Get Equal site from the first gay Marine to be discharged under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. I mention this not in any disrespect to all the other veterans who have served their country, but because "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is currently coming to a political showdown in the next few weeks.

But others will write such articles today, so I merely mention the subject in passing -- while wishing everyone a happy Veterans' Day, of course.

Instead, I'd like to address an issue of national security. An issue which also has enormous geopolitical and economic repercussions as well. But I'm going to take a roundabout way of getting to the point, I should warn everyone. Hey, by all rights, I shouldn't even be writing a column on a holiday, so you'll have to bear with me, I guess.

There's a song by James McMurtry which suggested itself to me to provide lyrical interludes today, for obvious reasons. But when I looked up the lyrics, the first verse provides a nice tie-in to today's holiday, so we'll just start with the beginning of "We Can't Make It Here."

There's a Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
Sitting there by the left turn line
Flag on his wheelchair flapping in the breeze
One leg missing and both hands free
No one's paying much mind to him
The V.A. budget's just stretched so thin
And now there's more coming back from the Mideast war
We can't make it here anymore

This was serendipitous, I admit, but the song really isn't about vets per se, but rather about the wholesale destruction of the manufacturing powerhouse America was in days gone by. As the song continues:

That big ol' building was the textile mill
That fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore

See those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna sit there 'til they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There's a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don't come down here unless you're looking to score
We can't make it here anymore

Unlike the song, however, I'm not writing a generic rant about the state of American industry as it pertains to our ability to both create products and jobs. Instead of generics, I'm more concerned about one specific case.

The town of Mountain Pass, California, is about as close to a ghost town as you can get without actually being empty. The town lies fifteen miles in from the Nevada border, on the interstate highway route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It is a mining boom town that went bust -- and not back in the Wild West days, but very recently. But it's not just any mining town out in the desert, it's a very special one.

When you drive by it on the freeway, you hardly notice it. Only a few dozen people live there, and there are no notable services for motorists (at least not the last time I passed by). This is somewhat inconceivable to drivers who have never left the East Coast, but out in the desert regions of the West, just because there's a little dot on your Rand McNally most decidedly does not mean there will be the usual gas stations, fast food joints, and hotels. Far from it.

Which is why you barely notice the place when you zip by it at 75 m.p.h. or better. It's what my grandfather used to call a "wonder town" -- if you blink as you go through it, you'll wonder where it went. Added to the diminutive size of the town is the fact that it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If there weren't a couple of casinos right over the Nevada border, the town would be dozens of miles -- in any direction -- from any other human habitation whatsoever. Again, if you haven't driven across a desert, you'll think I'm exaggerating, but if anything this is understating the remoteness and isolation.

But size and desirable location aren't everything. And "desirable location" can mean quite a number of different things. Mountain Pass does indeed have a desirable location, as it is situated right next to enormous deposits of the elements known as "rare earth" metals.

The term "rare earth" (other than speaking of a groovy 70s band) is somewhat misleading. They're actually pretty plentiful. You can find them in lots of places all over the Earth's crust. But seldom in concentration, and even then they tend to be impossible to separate -- all the rare earth elements tend to congregate together in deposits, and are hard to successfully isolate.

And although it's hard to believe when you see the place today, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine was the world's largest supplier of rare earth elements, from the 1960s to the 1980s. You can see, by looking at a chart of worldwide rare earth production, that they even named the "era" for the Mountain Pass mine. At one point, Mountain Pass was producing 70 percent of the world's supply of rare earths.

Since then, China has pretty much cornered the market (again, take a look at that chart). Which is why this is even an issue worth talking about. China today, it is estimated, controls a whopping 97 percent of the world's rare earth production. This is a disturbing development, because rare earths are used in a lot of high-tech stuff. Before the era of home computers, rare earths were mostly used (in consumer products) in color cathode-ray tubes (television sets, in other words), to get the brightest reds to appear on the screen. Nowadays, rare earths are used not only in high tech, but also in green tech: cell phones, hard drives, fluorescent lights, batteries for hybrid and electric automobiles, and in advanced magnets (used in all sorts of things, windmill turbines being just one). They are also critical for many military technologies, which is even more disturbing.

Think about that for a minute. Wikipedia reports: "night vision goggles, rangefinders, the SPY-1 radar used in some Aegis equipped warships, and the propulsion system of Arleigh Burke class destroyers all use rare earth elements in critical capacities."

And China has 97 percent of this market sewn up. China has also announced it will be cutting back on the amount of raw rare earth ore it will be selling to the world. Ostensibly, this is to create industry at home for them, as they would like to move up the "food chain" from being a mere producer of raw materials to being the world's producer of purified and refined rare earth metal products. Hey, it's their ore, so they can economically manage its usage for their own interests as they see fit, right?

I don't want to sound too alarmist over the situation, though. China didn't rise to worldwide dominance in rare earths by nefarious design, but rather because they got lucky, in a way. They were already mining iron ore at a mine called Bayan Obo, and discovered that the byproducts of this mining were rich in rare earths. This made it a lot cheaper for them to produce the elements than anyone else in the world.

Simultaneously, the rest of the world decided to throw in the towel on rare earth mining because of the environmental problems in purifying the rare earths from the ore. Rare earths tend to be found with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium. The Mountain Pass site itself was found by a uranium prospector back in 1949 (the U.S. government was encouraging the heck out of uranium mining in the early days of the nuclear arms race, for obvious reasons). What this means is that the tailings from the mine (the leftover stuff which the minerals you want are separated from) were radioactive. And the separation process used at the mine wasn't the most ecologically friendly.

With the confluence of the Western world getting out of the rare earth mining business and China getting into it almost by coincidence, the world's market shifted dramatically in the past two decades, until we find ourselves in the situation we do now.

But China's not blameless in this situation, either. They have shown not only a willingness to cut back dramatically on the rare earth ore they supply to the world, but also a recent willingness to cut it off entirely, when they feel like it. Japan just found this out. Japan and China were in an international disagreement about an incident which happened out at sea, and the Japanese government was holding a Chinese fishing ship captain in custody as a result. And -- completely coincidentally, as China tells it -- all shipments of rare earths to Japan from China ceased. Japan buckled, and sent the captain home to China. During this period (this all happened in the past three months), rare earth shipments to America were also briefly interrupted.

Unless this whole incident was complete coincidence (as the Chinese government insists), it shows China's willingness to use the supply of a valuable commodity on the world market for its own diplomatic and geopolitical goals.

Remember, rare earths are critical for a number of military uses, as well as for high-tech manufacturing of consumer items like cell phones and computer hard drives. And for all of those "next generation" green energy products the U.S. would dearly love to start making, in order to catch up to the rest of the world.

Which leads us back to our song lyrics:

Now I'm stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store
Just like the ones we made before
'Cept this one came from Singapore
I guess we can't make it here anymore

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in
Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today
No, I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They've never known want, they'll never know need
Their shit don't stink and their kids won't bleed
Their kids won't bleed in their damn little war
And we can't make it here anymore

Will work for food will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
So let 'em eat jellybeans let 'em eat cake
Let 'em eat shit, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can't make it here anymore

But unlike some grim and pessimistic stories of American industrial despair, this one may have a light at the end of the tunnel (to use an underground metaphor, since we're talking about mining here). Because a few people have already noticed that the canary in the American rare earth mining sector has keeled over (OK, that was probably a metaphor too far, sorry).

Plans are already underway to reopen the Mountain Pass mine. Apparently someone noticed that relying on the goodwill of the Chinese for crucial materials for our Aegis cruisers was probably not the optimum answer, in terms of military production and national security. To say nothing of the green manufacturing sector we'd dearly like to see America develop.

Molycorp, the new company created to reopen the Mountain Pass mine, certainly seems confident that it has solved the environmental problems associated with rare earth extraction. They even call rare earths "Green Elements" (obviously hoping to cash in on the whole "green jobs" idea) on their website. The company is already experimentally reprocessing mineral previously mined at Mountain Pass, and plans to fully reopen the mine next year. Australia also has plans to open a rare earth mine soon.

Molycorp also thinks they've got the economic problem solved, as well. From an article in M.I.T.'s Technology Review, a company spokesman claims:

By 2012, Molycorp expects to produce 20,000 tons a year, and under its current mining permits could double capacity to 40,000 tons. [Molycorp spokesman Jim] Sims also says the company will produce rare-earth products at half the cost of the Chinese in 2012. According to the company, these savings will be made possible by several changes, such as eliminating the production of waste saltwater. Molycorp will use a closed-loop system, converting the waste back into the acids and bases required for separation and eliminating the need to buy such chemicals. The company will also install a natural-gas power cogeneration facility onsite to cut energy costs.

In other words, maybe this story will have a happy ending, of sorts. Maybe at least one almost-deserted American town will be revitalized. Maybe we can create our own supply line, from the minehead to the Aegis warship. And maybe we can do it in a competitive economic way with China -- in a pioneering, environmentally-friendly way, to boot -- which could mean their worldwide monopoly is nearing an end on these raw materials which are so necessary for the technology of today and the future.

Maybe we can make it here. Again.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


12 Comments on “Rare Earth Optimism”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    That was a fascinating read. You know, the possibilities are endless and there is no good reason why the US can't be a leader in all of this, nothing against China.

    Have you heard anything about whether Molycorp Minerals will receive the "appropriate federal assistance" they will need to get the job done?

    After all, this seems to be exactly what Obama/Biden keep talking about in their effort to move the country forward on a green energy/green tech national initiative.

  2. [2] 
    Kevin wrote:

    I see Elizabeth beat me to it...ditto what she said. China more or less cornering the market was news to me as I'm sure it would be to most people. Hopefully the rest of the world (particularly us here in Canada) will get their geologists to work. Thanks again for your usual fascinating work :D

  3. [3] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    Well, there is always Afghanistan...

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Liz and Kevin -

    I can dig out the bill's particulars, but from the MIT article:

    A bill pending in the House and the Senate would offer loan guarantees for Molycorp and other investors in rare-earth mines. And the company has applied for loan guarantees through the U.S. Department of Energy, which will give a final decision next summer.

    That's all I've got at this point...


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Maybe we can make it here. Again.

    Assuming the radical environmentalists don't get a seat at the table.. :D

    Very good read CW.. I had known of the Japan/China incident, but didn't know how it tied in to a soon to be resurrected ghost town here in the US..

    I can check LEARN SOMETHING NEW TODAY off my list.. :D


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OK, I can now admit two things about writing this article.

    One, it was more fun to write than I had originally thought, because I didn't know any of the Mountain Pass stuff when I began researching it (the way I originally intended the article, it would have ended in a very grim way).

    Two, while I don't know the town of Mountain Pass very well, I do know the area. Coming home from Vegas (Netroots Nation) this year, our car broke down out in the desert about 10 miles from Mtn. Pass. We spent hours enjoying the 115 degree heat, waiting for a tow truck. There is NOTHING out there, which is why I didn't need to look up whether there were "services" at Mtn. Pass, I did that part from personal knowledge.

    Here's where our car broke down. See the bridge over the freeway? We managed to get off on the exit ramp, and that's where we sat for hours. The point of view of the photographer of this shot is actually close to Mtn. Pass, which (no surprise, really) is in a pass over a mountain ridge. You are looking back east towards Nevada (the photo was taken during a rare rainy year in the desert -- that lake is normally a dry lake). The Nevada border is easy to spot, on the far side of the lake, as that is where the casinos begin.

    Anyway, just wanted to share that.


  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Actually, in this case the radical environmentalists seem to be running the mining company. Read that TR article...

    This mine in years past did some bad things environmentally (see that photo link in my previous comment -- that lake is where lots of radioactive wastewater was pumped by the mine), but they seem to be serious about cleaning up their act. We'll see...


  8. [8] 
    Americulchie wrote:

    A really interesting article about the impending resurgence of Mountain View and of rare earth mining.I further aver that the power of suggestion in the written word is often overlooked;as I now have a compilation "tape" playing Rare Earth within the confines of my skull. :)

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    Actually, in this case the radical environmentalists seem to be running the mining company. Read that TR article...

    I was referring to the kind of environmentalist who wants to ban use of an area 800 miles in diameter just so one owl can get their Hoot on... :D


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    This mine in years past did some bad things environmentally (see that photo link in my previous comment -- that lake is where lots of radioactive wastewater was pumped by the mine), but they seem to be serious about cleaning up their act. We'll see...

    I guess that could be considered a GOOD thing...

    If the area is already laid waste, chances are there isn't any endangered wildlife that would have to be protected, thereby frak'ing up the mining operation...

    "Endangered dirt?? That's a new one.."
    -Christian Slater, BROKEN ARROW



  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    And now, let's have a little time out for humor... :D

    Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama go to heaven...

    God addresses Al first... ''Al, what do you believe in?"

    Al replies: "Well, I believe that I won that election, but that it was your will that I did not serve. I've come to understand that now."

    God thinks for a second and says: "Very good. Come and sit at my left."

    God then addresses Bill. "Bill, what do you believe in?"

    Bill replies: "I believe in forgiveness. I've sinned, but I've never held a grudge against my fellow man, and I hope no grudges are held against me."

    God thinks for a second and says: "You are forgiven, my son. Come and sit at my right."

    Then God addresses Barack. "Barack, what do you believe in?"

    Obama replies: "I believe you're in my chair."



  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Americulchie -

    I should have warned you to "Get Ready."

    Sorry. Bad joke, but I couldn't resist it...



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