Military photo

Japan has already taken measures to innovateand make deals around China’s monopoly on the global supply of refined rare earth elements, and the U.S. is now doing the same. 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.

The development of a domestic U.S. source of rare earths really doesn’t come as a surprise, though it does add another wrinkle to the ongoing rare earhts narrative that is increasingly seeing the U.S., Europe, and Japan aligning themselves opposite China in a sometimes quiet, sometimes overt struggle for these prized raw materials that are necessary to manufacture everything from portable electronics to emerging green technologies to high-tech weaponry. Both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense have voiced concerns about a disruption in supply, concerns that were exacerbated this year when China quietly imposed a brief and unofficial embargo on exports to Japan.

Technology Review