Assessing the US Supply of Rare Earth Elements
In the headlines lately has been news of China's monopoly of rare earth elements (REE), adding to China's growing clout. It would increase their leverage should they choose to reduce exports, causing REE prices to soar. The United States imports almost all of its REE from China, putting it in a position of geopolitical weakness. In light of this circumstance, the US Geological Survey (USGS) has conducted a study to map out the presence of REE found domestically. It turns out that rare earth elements in the United States are not so rare.
Rare earth elements are a group of 17 metallic elements that are essential for high technology applications. They all have unique electrical, optical, and thermal properties that distinguish them from more common minerals. REE are composed of Scandium (#21 on the periodic table, Yttrium (#39), and lanthanides (#57-71) which include Lanthanum, Promethium, and Europium.
Since most people are not geologists or high-tech engineers, these elements are unfamiliar. Yet without them, many of our current technologies would not exist, such as lasers, color TVs, certain computer components and batteries, and long-distance fiber optic cables. Newer technologies that require them include electric vehicles and photo-voltaic cells.
Rare earth elements are found commonly throughout the Earth's crust, but rarely in economically recoverable concentrations. They are often found in hard-rock deposits. The USGS study analyzed these deposits as well as placer and phosphorite deposits. They estimate that the United States holds about 13 million metric tons of REE within its borders. At a consumption rate of about 10,000 metric tons annually, these deposits can potentially meet demands for 1,300 years barring any changes.
"This is the first detailed assessment of rare earth elements for the entire nation, describing deposits throughout the United States," commented USGS Director Marcia McNutt, Ph.D. "It will be very important, both to policy-makers and industry, and it reinforces the value of our efforts to maintain accurate, independent information on our nation's natural resources."
The USGS found significant deposits in the following 14 states:
Northeast: New York
Southeast: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida
Midwest: Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska
West: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, California, Alaska
The largest deposits were found at Mountain Pass, California; Bokan Mountain, Alaska; and Bear Lodge Mountains, Wyoming. The Mountain Pass REE mine previously supplied the US but it closed down in 2002, due to cheaper REE prices from China and environmental restrictions. In 2008, it was sold by Chevron to Molycorp Minerals LLC which plans to reopen it in 2011.
Now that China's hold on the REE market is clear, the US and other countries such as Australia and Canada are exploring their own reserves. Development of domestic supplies could help meet increasing demands and shield industry from potential cuts in Chinese exports. In this sense, rare earth elements have become a national security issue. It should then come as no surprise that the USGS study was funded by the US Department of Defense. Thanks to this study, domestic users of REE should feel a little more comfortable to know that they are not completely dependent on overseas supplies.
A link to the USGS report can be found here: http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2010/5220/