Mining rubble found to contain sought-after rare-earth elements
SACRAMENTO — Across the West, early miners digging for gold, silver and copper had no idea that one day, something else very valuable would be buried in the piles of dirt and rocks they tossed aside.
There's a rush in America to find key components of cellphones, televisions, weapons systems, wind turbines, MRI machines and the regenerative brakes in hybrid cars, and old mine tailings piles just might be the answer. They may contain a group of versatile minerals the periodic table called rare-earth elements.
“Uncle Sam could be sitting on a gold mine,” said Larry Meinert, director of the mineral resource program for the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va.
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 in order to break the Chinese stranglehold on those supplies.
They were surprised to find that the critical elements could be in plain sight in piles of rubble otherwise considered eyesores and toxic waste. One era's junk could turn out to be 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.”
The 15 rare-earth elements were discovered long after the gold rush began to wane, and demand for them only took off over the past 10 years as electronics became smaller and more sophisticated. They begin with number 57 lanthanum and end with 71 lutetium, a group of metallic chemical elements that are not rare as much as they are difficult to mine because they occur in tiny amounts and are often stuck to each other.
Unlike metals higher on the table such as silver and gold, there's no good agent for dissolving elements so closely linked in atomic structure without destroying the target. It makes 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. 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,” said Ian Ridley, director of the USGS Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center in Colorado.
Two years ago, China raised prices — in the case of neodymium, used to make Prius electric motors stronger and lighter, 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. It's about the time China cut off supplies to Japan, maker of the Prius, in a dispute over international fishing territory. That's when the U.S. government went into emergency mode and sent geologists to hunt for domestic sources.
“It's a global problem. A growing middle class around the world means more and more people want things like cellphones,” said Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute of the Department of Energy's Ames Research Lab in Iowa.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Murder charges dropped against sergeant who shot 2 unarmed Iraqi boys
- First Ebola case in U.S. confirmed in Dallas
- Secret Service chief endures blistering glare of Congress’ questions over White House breach
- Pentagon review puts Gitmo transfers on ice
- New York City mayor boosts city’s living wage to $13.13
- Dallas hospital confirms 1st Ebola case in U.S.
- California becomes 1st state to ban plastic bags
- FCC backs end to NFL broadcast blackouts
- Feds say $100M in data hacked
- Panel says Wis. lawmaker likely broke House rules by advocating for companies in which he owned stock
- Medical marijuana use to get court test in Colo.