US must dig on rare earth metals

April 21, 2011


As seen in The Hill Blog.

By Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)

Even as technology becomes increasingly critical to the way we live our lives, power our world and defend our shores, the United States has allowed the production of minerals crucial in the creation of these advanced products to slide.

Critical to high-tech clean-energy and defense manufacturing, rare-earth elements (REEs) are minerals used in the production of cutting-edge technologies such as wind turbines, batteries for mobile phones, laptop computers, the planet’s most powerful magnets, military radar and sophisticated weapon systems  — just to name a few.

But today, China accounts for 97 percent of global REE production and announced it is cutting production for the first half of 2011 by 35 percent. Because China dominates production, it aims to build a strategic stockpile that will not only fuel their green tech revolution but also give it greater control over international prices.

Dysprosium – one of the most critical rare-earth elements used in heat-resistant magnets for military radar systems (In Latin, dysprosium means “hard to get”) – has risen from $6.50 per pound in 2003 to more than $130 per pound today.

This Chinese monopoly is creating a strategic vulnerability for the United States that undermines our national security and competitiveness in the defense and clean-energy sectors.

Rare earth shortages could also cause green energy and tech companies already weakened by the recession to falter, industry officials say. Electric cars like GM’s Chevrolet Volt use seven pounds of rare-earth magnets, while each clean-energy wind turbine uses more than 600 pounds of another rare earth element, neodymium.

Like President Obama, I am committed to a future powered by clean energy. Without secure access to REEs, we will be unable to lead the world in cleantech. If the global and U.S. green economies are going to truly take off, rare earths can’t remain rare much longer.

“The problems are real and serious,” Robert Jaffe, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” told Time magazine. “If appropriate steps are not taken, we face possible short-term constraints of supply to what could otherwise be game-changing energy technologies.”

That’s why Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and I proposed the RARE Act, which will dramatically advance our ability to access rare earths worldwide.

The RARE Act directs the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct a three-year, comprehensive global mineral assessment of REEs.

The USGS global assessment, conducted with geological surveys of partner nations around the world, will identify and quantify individual REEs in known deposits, improve understanding of the distribution and formation of rare earth element deposits, assess likely undiscovered deposits worldwide, analyze the state of the complete rare earths supply chain from mining to manufacturing, and recommend further research and steps to improve our understanding and ensure future access.

Mining company Molycorp owns the only rare earth production facility in the U.S. in Mountain Pass, Calif., and produces about 3 percent of the world’s rare earths.

Currently in the middle of a more than $500 million modernization, Mountain Pass will expand its current annual production from 3,000 tons of rare earths to nearly 20,000 tons annually, largely reversing our nation’s near-total dependence on foreign suppliers.   

But mining and processing these materials does not come without risk. The toxic acids needed for refining REEs and water runoff mixed with radioactive elements from the thorium and uranium can cause environmental problems.

To meet stricter U.S. environmental standards and make the process safer for our environment, Molycorp is constructing an on-site natural gas plant to cleanly generate the electricity needed to process REEs. The company is also employing mining wastewater recycling process that will not only make the processing of rare earths safer but use just 10 percent of the water that was needed a generation ago.

The only solution to end China’s rare earth dominance is renewed commitment to domestic production with government help. Private industry, aided by the RARE Act, will help reverse the dearth of rare earths in the U.S. needed to fuel our technological future.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) is a member of the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees and author of the Resource Assessment of Rare Earths Act of 2011 or RARE Act.


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