With rare earth supplies uncertain and gold and silver prices spiking, a new international project wants to mine a potentially huge untapped source of minerals and metals: that dresser drawer where you’re hoarding all your old cell phones.
A chunk of magnetite guards the office door at the Pea Ridge iron mine near Sullivan, Mo., a mascot of the mine's past and future. When Jim Kennedy bought the mine in 2001, he'd planned to restart production on a high-grade iron ore deposit. He didn't realize he was sitting on a mother lode of 600,000 metric tons of high-grade rare earth elements -- elements the U.S. is desperately hungry for. Four years ago, he almost threw away reams of documents describing Pea Ridge's deposit. "Nobody bothered to tell me about it," he said.
All those hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines and similar clean tech innovations may count for nothing if the U.S. cannot secure a supply of rare earth minerals. Ditto for other advanced telecommunications or defense technologies, scientists told a U.S. House subcommittee.
China has supplied 91 percent of U.S. consumption of rare earths between 2005 and 2008, and continues to represent the world's largest rare earth exporter. But the Chinese have warned that their own domestic industry appetite for rare earths may eventually force them to stop exporting -- an action that would leave the U.S. high-tech industries crippled without other readily available supplies.