[China supplies 95% of these elements, and they are slowing or stopping shipments for political gain]. Rare earths producer Molycorp has secured the proper permits and clearances needed to reopen the Mountain Pass, Calif., mine that should be able to cover the current domestic demand for rare earths once it reaches full production.
Mountain Pass would be the first domestic producer of rare earths in the U.S. in more than a decade, when cheap Chinese imports rendered the U.S. market unprofitable. The 50-acre pit near Las Vegas is about 500 feet deep currently, but expansion will push it down another 1,000 feet in coming years.
By 2012, Mountain Pass is projected to be capable of delivering around 20,000 tons of rare earth materials per year. Molycorp says it has already lined up contracts for a quarter of the materials it will mine during that first year of full production, and already has letters of intent to sell the rest in U.S., Japanese, and European markets.
The materials that come out of Mountain Pass will be used to make high-strength magnets necessary for electric vehicle engines, wind turbines, and a variety of other high-tech products. However, the U.S. possesses neither the technology nor the licensing to manufacture the neodymium-iron-boron alloy necessary for their production. As such, Molycorp has partnered with Japanese firm Hitachi Metals to manufacture the magnets in the United States.
In addition to re-establishing our own mining capability, I hope this will give us additional motivation to recycle technical components and start thinking about recycling from a product life cycle perspective.