MOUNTAIN PASS, Calif.--Here in a hot, dusty corner of the Mojave Desert, some of the world's most prized metals--used in the production of everything from hybrid cars to cell phones to hard disk drives--are being mined from the earth.
Molycorp, a U.S.-based supplier of rare earth minerals, hosted a groundbreaking event Wednesday for its re-opening of the Mountain Pass mining facility, which had been closed since the 1990s. Mining operations are underway, although the $500 million renovation and construction project isn't scheduled to be complete until July 2012.
There has been growing attention being paid to rare earth elements because most of these materials are sourced in China and they are vital to the advancement of clean-energy and other technologies.
Molycorp says the facility will help reduce costs and environmental impacts of the rare-earth-element-mining process, and provides a homegrown source for the elements--17 in all--used in so many national defense, energy, and consumer electronics products.
Here is an overview shot of the facility, taken from a bus tour Molycorp hosted as part of the groundbreaking event.
Rare earth metals mined from Mountain Pass, such as lanthanides, scandium, and yttrium, offer unique magnetic, luminescence, and electrochemical properties critical to technology we use every day, such as batteries, weapons systems and wind turbines.
The facility hasn't always been buzzing like this.
Acids, typically hydrochloric, were formally used to extract the rare earth elements from the bastacite, resulting in a highly acidic saltwater byproduct. That was made radioactive from naturally occurring thorium and radium. Huge evaporation ponds stored the radioactive byproduct wastewater, and over time leaks caused massive environmental damage to the nearby Ivanpah Dry Lake area. In 2002, after a series of violations, the Mountain Pass facility was closed.
Before the facility closed, more than 20 tanker trucks a day delivered hydrochloric acid and bases to the site. The huge amounts of toxic saltwater byproduct eventually seeped through the holding ponds causing environmental devastation.
Lower prices for rare earth elements also contributed to the closure of the Mountain Pass facility, sending mining and production to China. China now produces 97 percent of the rare earth elements in the world.
Molycorp President and CEO Mark Smith speaks to journalists about the facility renovation project during the groundbreaking event.
Molycorp hired 17 "young-gun" geologists and spent five years researching a way to reinvent the mining and extraction process to not only compete with China on costs, but to also make the process more environmentally sustainable.
Molycorp Minerals purchased the mine in 2008, and with a CEO in place who had once been the environmental compliance attorney for the former Mountain Pass facility, set out to revive and reorganize the rare earth extraction.
The new patented process will allow for a higher rate of recovery, yielding the same amount of product the facility yielded 10 years ago, but using just half the ore.
Smith explains how by reverse-engineering the processes, the company is taking what was once saltwater byproduct and using the waste to recreate the acids and bases used in the extraction processes. That creates a plant with near zero wastewater emissions. The process is cleaner and cheaper, and can be done at nearly half the cost of the mine's Chinese counterparts, Smith said.
Weighed rock on display at the facility, next to hard hats worn by journalists on the tour.
Currently there's not enough rare earth to meet demand, Molycorp said. Some 33,000 tons of rare earth elements are currently produced in China, and the world has an appetite for at least 55,000 tons a year.
Molycorp estimates that by 2015, at its current rate of growth, China may have to begin importing to meet its own needs. Until Molycorp gets its production into full swing, which won't be until July 2012, the world will have a shortage of rare earths elements.
Many see the availability of rare earth elements as an issue of U.S. national security. They are key ingredients in some of the country's most essential smart weapons and radar systems, and components of magnetic motors in wind turbines and hybrid cars. Lanthium and cerium are used in oil refining and fiber-optics transmission.
Only five rare earth element mines worldwide produce a 2 percent or more yield, Molycorp said. The Mountain Pass site has an average return of around 8.5 percent, which will eventually produce an estimated 40,000 metric tons per year.