Rare Earths Here?
Source: Kansas City Star, Scott Canon (6/23/11)
"Southeastern Nebraska drills away at a troubling Chinese monopoly."
Each 3,000-foot hole bored into the rolling hills of southeastern Nebraska potentially drills away at a troubling Chinese monopoly.
The drills pull up cylinders of rock in search of exotic minerals, such as neodymium, praseodymium and ytterbium.
Those rare earth elements (REEs) are critical ingredients of your car's catalytic converter and your computer's flat-screen display, of smart phones and smart bombs. They make a Prius purr and lasers shine.
In an age of the digital and the virtual, they are the "hard" in hardware.
In 2010, the world mined 133,000 tons REEs. Of that, all but 3,000 tons came from China. In the U.S., there is but one mine—in the unincorporated San Bernardino County community of Mountain Pass—responsible for the entire country's output.
The search for rare earth element-rich veins below the corn and soybean fields near Elk Creek could be the beginning of a long U.S. creep back into the mining of ores that form the innards of high technology.
"We could go without this stuff," said Matt Joeckel, a University of Nebraska geologist who also works for the state's Conservation and Survey Division, "if we cared to go back to maybe a 1940s level of technology." .
Global demand for rare earths is projected to climb 8% per year, while China has effectively clamped down the growth of the supply at zero.
A DOE report last year warned that supplies are "at risk" of disruption. Limits on Chinese exports could increasingly mean that high-tech equipment made with REEs will be made only in China.
REEs play a growing role in making our modern military more modern. Without rare earths, satellite-guided bombs would weigh three times as much. A hybrid motor contemplated for a new class of naval destroyer would be in jeopardy. Night-vision goggles would go dark.
Some in Congress suggest the country's national security is threatened if supplies run too short.