iFixit cofounder Kyle Wiens visits the only source of rare earth metals in North America -- and one of the few places to get these materials outside China.
That big hole in the ground? It's a pit mine at the Molycorp Mountain Pass rare earth facility in California's Mojave Desert. Metals mined from pits like that were used to make the cell phone in your pocket and the computer screen you're staring at right now. I visited Molycorp two weeks ago, as part of our investigation into the sources and consequences of consumer electronics manufacturing.
What are Rare Earths?
Molycorp is the only US company that produces the rare earth metals used in devices ranging from wind turbines and electric vehicles to missile-guidance systems and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. There are seventeen rare earth elements, including praseodymium (used to make photographic filters), neodymium (used to make permanent magnets in hard drives and other electronics), and europium (used to make fluorescent light bulbs and TV screens).
Rare earths are used in a wide variety of electronics and clean energy technology. Somewhat counterintuitively, rare earths are not rare in the earth's crust; however, they tend to be dispersed in tiny quantities throughout the crust. They're often located within minerals such as bastnaesite and monazite, which makes them difficult and expensive to mine.
The Rise and Fall"and Rise Again"of Molycorp
At one point, the majority of the world's rare earths were mined at the Mountain Pass facility. Then, in 1998, Molycorp halted chemical processing at the mine following an environmental disaster; radioactive wastewater flooded the nearby Ivanpah Dry Lake. At the same time, China was dramatically increasing its rare earth production.
The resulting lower market prices forced Molycorp to close their mine in 2002. Although Molycorp has continued to extract metals from stockpiles of ore mined at Mountain Pass, China now produces between 96% and 99% of the world's total rare earth supply. The government carefully allocates supply to individual companies to support domestic electronics production. In 2009, they cut export quotas of rare earths from 50,000 to 30,000 tonnes, sending already-high prices on international markets even higher.
Molycorp has been working for several years to begin mining for rare earths once again, to help wean US manufacturers off Chinese imports. This year, they will reopen the Mountain Pass mine, an operation they've aptly named "Project Phoenix." Getting to this point, however, has been expensive -- about $1 billion so far -- and has required a lot of special environmental permits.
In July 2010, Molycorp went public on the NYSE with an Initial Public Offering of $394 million. In December 2010, they secured permits to start building a mining and manufacturing center so they could resume mining light rare earth elements such as neodymium and europium. The next month, they started mining bastnaesite ore.
In October 2011, Molycorp announced that they discovered a heavy rare earth deposit near their Mountain Pass facility and received permission to drill two months later. The heavy rare earths terbium, yttrium, and dysprosium are necessary for manufacturing wind turbines and solar cells, so the government has a particular interest in finding sources of those elements within the US.