Long before iPhones roll off the assembly lines in Zhengzhou, minerals are pulled from the earth from around the globe, the very first step in an iPhone's life. This is a rare-earth mineral mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., run by Molycorp. Rare-earth minerals create the magnets in the iPhone's speakers and the phosphors in its screens.
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Pulling rocks from the earth
Heavy machinery at the bottom of Molycorp's Mountain Pass, Calif., mine excavates and transports rocks to a processing operation nearby. A tanker, meanwhile, sprays water to tamp down the dust so prevalent in the Mojave Desert.
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Crushing rocks into pebbles
The rocks that Molycorp pulls from the earth at its Mountain Pass, Calif., mine move to a crushing facility nearby. There, the ore gets pounded into pieces about three-eighths of an inch wide. Those pebbles then move via conveyer belt to a mill, get mixed with water and dumped into a giant cylinder with large steel balls that turn the mixture into a slurry. Then Molycorp adds chemicals and heats the slurry up. The rare-earth minerals rise with the bubbles that float to the top and are skimmed off.
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Powdered rare-earth minerals
After Molycorp separates the rare-earth minerals from the rocks it mines in Mountain Pass, Calif., it presses the liquid out. That concentrate heads to a separations facility, where acids are added to pull apart the different rare-earth minerals. Those elements are dried, creating powder versions of such rare-earth minerals as Neodymium and Europium.
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Bagged powder, ready for sale
After Molycorp separates the rare-earth elements and dries them into powders, it bags them up for sale. These bags of didymium, a combination of praseodymium and neodymium, sell for about $75,000 each.
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Old mining operations shuttered
This is the old rare-earth mineral processing facility in Mountain Pass, Calif. The mine was shuttered in 2002, after a series of spills dumped 300,000 gallons of radioactive waste in the Mojave Desert. That posed a risk to a national park habitat that's home to desert tortoises, an endangered species.
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New, greener, mineral processing
After a series of spills shut down the Mountain Pass, Calif., mine, Molycorp developed a new process to extract rare-earth minerals from rocks that is more environmentally responsible. The company invested $895 million to modernize the mining operations, and is closing in on completion of new buildings at the site.
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Joshua Tree nursery
Molycorp's rare-earth mining and processing operations in Mountain Pass, Calif., have displaced many Joshua Trees. The company has replanted every one, it says, in a nursery it created nearby.
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Molycorp's chief executive
Molycorp Chief Executive Mark Smith looks over the company's 2,222 acre rare-earth mining and processing operation in Mountain Pass, Calif.