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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.