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U.S. may be sitting on a gold mine in rare earth elements

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 22nd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Early miners digging for gold, silver and copper had no idea what riches would be found alongside in the piles of dirt and rocks. There's a new rush in the United States to find key components of cell phones, televisions, weapons systems, wind turbines, MRI machines and the regenerative brakes in hybrid cars and old mine tailings. These byproducts could very well contain minerals the periodic table calls rare earth elements.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "Uncle Sam could be sitting on a gold mine," Larry Meinert, director of the mineral resource program for the U.S. Geological Survey says.

Both the USGS and Department of Energy are on a nationwide scramble for deposits of the elements that make magnets lighter, bring balanced hues to fluorescent lighting and color to the touch screens of Smartphones. To do so would break the monopoly the Chinese has one these supplies.

Researchers discovered critical elements could be in plain sight in piles of rubble usually dismissed as worthless junk, in an example of one era's junk becoming this era's treasure.

"Those were almost never analyzed for anything other than what they were mining for," Meinert said. "If they turn out to be valuable that is a win-win on several fronts - getting us off our dependence on China and having a resource we didn't know about."

Fifteen rare earth elements were discovered after the gold rush died down. Demand for these elements only increased over the past 10 years as electronic devices became smaller and more sophisticated.

Beginning with number 57 Lanthanum and ending with 71 Lutetium, this group of metallic chemical elements is not that rare as they are difficult to mine. The elements are difficult to mine as they occur in tiny amounts and are often stuck to each other.

Unlike metals higher up on the table such as silver and gold, there's no good agent for dissolving these elements, making mining for them tedious and expensive.

"The reason they haven't been explored for in the U.S. was because as long as China was prepared to export enough rare earths to fill the demand, everything was fine - like with the oil cartels. When China began to use them as a political tool, people began to see the vulnerability to the U.S. economy to having one source of rare earth elements," Ian Ridley, director of the USGS Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center says.

China raised prices two years ago. Neodymium, used to make Prius electric motors stronger and lighter, went from $15 a kilogram in 2009 to $500 in 2011, while Dysprosium oxide used in lasers and halide lamps went from $114 a kilogram in 2010 to $2,830 in 2011.

That's when the U.S. government went into emergency mode and sent geologists to hunt for new domestic sources.

"What we have is a clash of supply and demand. It's a global problem. A growing middle class around the world means more and more people want things like cell phones," Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute of the Department of Energy's Ames Research Lab says. "Our job is to solve the problem any way we can."

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