Rare earth minerals: Why SoCal holds the key to modern technology's ingredients

Yttrium has often been classified as a rare earth element, though it is never found in nature as a free element.
Yttrium has often been classified as a rare earth element, though it is never found in nature as a free element.
Radioactive Rosca/Flickr/Creative Commons

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Rare earth metals aren’t rare at all: They’re relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, but usually in tiny concentrations too small to make it worth the cost to mine.

They are also key ingredients for the high-tech age.

"Everything from hard discs to microphones to small headsets use rare earths in their components," says Cal Tech geologist George Rossman. "Rare earths are the components that make the smallest magnets that exist. If we want small, lightweight, powerful motors, we have rare earth magnets inside them. Anything we want to be small, lightweight and compact, we have to have rare earths."

Rare earth metals are in your computer screen and your smartphone. They’re in MRI machines and weapons systems. So what exactly are they? You can find most of them listed across one of the bottom lines of the periodic table you may remember from chemistry class. The names don’t exactly roll off the tongue.

"The names of the elements are the lanthanides, and that includes lanthanum, neodymium, promethium," Rossman explains. The geologist sits in his office at Caltech like a school kid surrounded by a year’s worth of geology projects. Different sizes, shapes and colors of rocks, minerals and crystals line the shelves, the walls and his desk.

He explains that one rare earth element, yttrium, with its unusual spelling and pronunciation, is named after a region in Scandinavia where the first rare earths were discovered.

China has by far the lion’s share of the rare earth market, upwards of 95 percent. One American company is trying to gain a bigger sliver of the business.

That brings us to a patch of the Mojave Desert, just this side of Las Vegas. It’s where you’ll find the Mountain Pass mine, the only rare earth mining operation in the U.S. It sits on about 2,000 acres and is run by a company called Molycorp.

Mountain Pass, Calif. has one of the richest, densest concentrations of rare earth minerals anywhere in the world. Jim Sims is a Molycorp spokesman. He says there’s an open pit mine and a series of facilities that separate out the rare earth elements.

Sims says rare earth mining is so expensive that Molycorp won’t extract a metal unless it has already been pre-sold. "It almost has to be. We have to process these in unique ways for each customer. Before we scoop anything out of the ground they are pre-sold to a customer," he explains.

Molycorp had to shut the mine down 10 years ago. China slashed its prices for rare earth metals and flooded the market. Molycorp's mine just reopened last fall, and Sims says Molycorp is giving it a nearly $1 billion makeover. "That is Project Phoenix. We are completely rebuilding the facility into a state of the art processing facility for rare earths. It will be the most advanced in the world," he says.

Sims says Molycorp is renovating in part because it’s come up with a more efficient way to extract the elements. The U.S. government is pleased that Molycorp is stepping up its rare earth operations. But the project in the Mojave Desert is just one small part of a much bigger global game.

One area where China is heavily involved is East Africa. KPCC's Shirley Jahad is traveling there to do some reporting as a recipient of a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, the Ford Foundation and Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation. Stay tuned for the second part of this two-feature series, coming tomorrow.