Rare earth mining may be key to our renewable energy future. But at what cost?

By | January 12, 2023

Carolyn Gramling writes:

In spring 1949, three prospectors armed with Geiger counters set out to hunt for treasure in the arid mountains of southern Nevada and southeastern California.

In the previous century, those mountains yielded gold, silver, copper and cobalt. But the men were looking for a different kind of treasure: uranium. The world was emerging from World War II and careening into the Cold War. The United States needed uranium to build its nuclear weapons arsenal. Mining homegrown sources became a matter of national security.

After weeks of searching, the trio hit what they thought was pay dirt. Their instruments detected intense radioactivity in brownish-red veins of ore exposed in a rocky outcrop within California’s Clark Mountain Range. But instead of uranium, the brownish-red stuff turned out to be bastnaesite, a mineral bearing fluorine, carbon and 17 curious elements known collectively as rare earths. Traces of radioactive thorium, also in the ore, had set the Geiger counters pinging.

As disappointing as that must have been, the bastnaesite still held value, and the prospectors sold their claim to the Molybdenum Corporation of America, later called Molycorp. The company was interested in mining the rare earths. During the mid-20th century, rare earth elements were becoming useful in a variety of ways: Cerium, for example, was the basis for a glass-polishing powder and europium lent luminescence to recently invented color television screens and fluorescent lamps.

For the next few decades, the site, later dubbed Mountain Pass mine, was the world’s top source for rare earth elements, until two pressures became too much. By the late 1980s, China was intensively mining its own rare earths — and selling them at lower prices. And a series of toxic waste spills at Mountain Pass brought production at the struggling mine to a halt in 2002.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The green-tech revolution of the 21st century brought new attention to Mountain Pass, which later reopened and remains the only U.S. mine for rare earths.

Rare earths are now integral to the manufacture of many carbon-neutral technologies — plus a whole host of tools that move the modern world. These elements are the building blocks of small, super­efficient permanent magnets that keep smartphones buzzing, wind turbines spinning, electric vehicles zooming and more.

Mining U.S. sources of rare earth elements, President Joe Biden’s administration stated in February 2021, is a matter of national security.

Rare earths are not actually rare on Earth, but they tend to be scattered throughout the crust at low concentrations. And the ore alone is worth relatively little without the complex, often environmentally hazardous processing involved in converting the ore into a usable form, says Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware in Newark. As a result, the rare earth mining industry is wrestling with a legacy of environmental problems.

Rare earths are mined by digging vast open pits in the ground, which can contaminate the environment and disrupt ecosystems. When poorly regulated, mining can produce wastewater ponds filled with acids, heavy metals and radioactive material that might leak into groundwater. Processing the raw ore into a form useful to make magnets and other tech is a lengthy effort that takes large amounts of water and potentially toxic chemicals, and produces voluminous waste. [Continue reading…]

AFP reports:

Europe’s largest known deposit of rare earth elements, essential for the manufacturing of electric vehicles, has been discovered in Sweden’s far north, boosting Europe’s hopes of cutting its dependence on China.

Swedish mining group LKAB said Thursday the newly-explored deposit, found right next to its iron ore mine, contained more than one million tonnes of rare earth oxides.

“This is the largest known deposit of rare earth elements in our part of the world, and it could become a significant building block for producing the critical raw materials that are absolutely crucial to enable the green transition,” LKAB’s chief executive Jan Mostrom said in a statement.

“We face a supply problem. Without mines, there can be no electric vehicles,” Mostrom added.

While the find is believed to be the biggest in Europe, it remains small on a global scale, representing less than one percent of the 120 million tonnes estimated worldwide by the US Geological Survey.

In 2021, the European Commission said that 98 percent of the rare earths used in the EU were imported from China, prompting Brussels to urge member states to develop their own extraction capacities. [Continue reading…]

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