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  1. Why exactly isn't the US mining and producing its own rare earth metals (REEs)? I'm baffled by the mixed messages below. Because China uniquely possesses some REEs? US safeguards against pollution more than China? US would take too much time or is inefficient to establish its own production?

  2. Can the US gainfully do so? How long would the US need to self-rely?

I know of the Mountain Pass mine in California, Canada, Australia's Mount Weld and Lynas Corp's processing facility in Malayasia and Brazil, Vietnam, and Russia.

Pentagon in talks with Australia on rare earths plant : geopolitics

There is a large subsection of rare earth materials that are not found outside of China in any mining development.

There's I believe a list of 18 and Australia's Lynas only has about 5-6 iirc, and altogether the world can't cobble all 18 together without relying on China.

Rare Earths in the US-China Trade War : geopolitics

There's no suppliers outside China. There are potential minerals deep in some countries with no technology or existing extraction operation.

United States implements Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) with countries such as Australia, Peru, Argentina, Namibia and the Philippines to limit China's control of rare earth minerals : geopolitics

It is not the source of supply that matters but the extraction and refining tech that help China dominate. The supply still have to be sent to China for processing.

Pentagon legislation seeks to end US dependence on Chinese rare earth metals : wallstreetbets

  • REMs actually aren't that rare, despite their name. Japan recently found deposits that could basically supply Earth from now to infinity. The US has huge deposits as well.

  • The US already has infrastructure in place. Before China undercut the market, the US actually supplied the world with most of the REMs needed from mining at Mountain Pass. Mountain Pass still exists and has output shutdown because China didn't make it profitable, but the point is that it still exists and infrastructure is already there. In theory, we could just start it up again without needing too much more investment.

  • REMs can easily be recycled. In fact, this is what Apple does out of environmental concerns and to hopefully reach a point where REMs never have to be mined for again:

https://www.engadget.com/2019-09-18-apple-will-use-recycled-rare-earth-metals-iphone-taptic-engine.html

  • The US and even private companies have some stockpiles of REMs to hold out in the short term if there were disruptions in REM supplies.

When you combine Mountain Pass, the ability to recycle REMs, and REM reserves, there's very little strategic gain for China to cut supplies. It'll just encourage development in other countries and shifting of sourcing to places like Japan. The US would just fire up Mountain Pass again. China would lose market share. In fact, China already tried to restrict REM supplies earlier in the 2010s; it wasn't effective at all.

enronCoin. 11 points 10 months ago

You definitely aren’t wrong, but maybe you’re underestimating the fact that China has 1/3 of the world rare earth reserves and 40x as much untapped supply as the US.

Who can produce at the lowest cost? Probably China, where rare earth is abundant and labor is cheap.

LukeSkyWRx. 12 points 10 months ago*

They are also the only ones that will separate the ores as it is a really nasty process with vats of acid and tons of toxic chemical waste. Look up lake Baotou in China, that is where lots of China’s rare earths come from and where they pump the waste when they are done. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth it could be done ‘clean’ if there were some incentive to do so.

Since lots of the deposits in the US have a bunch of Thorium in them as well they are heavily regulated similar to uranium mining. With that extra burden most deposits are uneconomical to extract.

China Mouthpiece on Twitter says they may stop Rare Earth sales to US. : wallstreetbets

The reason why China and REMs are always mentioned in the same sentence is because China pulled an Amazon and undercut their competitors with government subsidies to dominate the market. You can find other sources but they cost much more, mainly because they don’t have people backing them trying to monopolize the entire industry. This is actually a blessing in disguise. We need more neodymium if we ever want to fulfill a dream of renewable energy overtaking coal and gas. Just like any business, people follow the money, and we know the US is sitting on mountains (literally) of resources waiting to be mined and used. Provided domestic industry gets some help I can see this blowing up in China’s face.

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    – Solar Mike
    May 30, 2020 at 6:30

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There's an adage spoken by some in the minerals industry ... "gold is you find it". That adage is equally applicable to all mineral commodities, including rare earth elements (REE).

Rare earth elements are not particularly rare, they are found throughout the Earth's crust. The trouble is, their concentrations within the crust are very low.

Mineral resources are classified as either mineral deposits or ore reserves. The difference between the two is economics. Ore reserves are mineral deposits that can be mined for a profit. This includes the costs of geological exploration, evaluation, mining, subsequent processing (sometimes primary and secondary) and marketing/sales.

What makes REEs regarded as being rare is they are rarely found in large concentrations that would make them economical to mine. This is a quirk of geology.

As is stated, China contains the largest reserves of REEs, with smaller deposits occurring in a small number of countries. That's just mother nature!

The other thing that can be attributed to geology is not all deposits of REEs contain every rare earth element.

REEs are have been classified as being either light or heavy:

Light REEs (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium and scandium) are produced in global abundance and are in surplus supply

Heavy REEs (terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium and yttrium) are produced mainly in China and are in limited supply. Global efforts to bring new resources to the marketplace continue.

American REE deposits may not contain all the REEs America may require and given that some of the REEs, particularly the heavy ones, are mostly found in China, America may be dependent on China for supplies of these metals. After all, there 17 REEs.

Even if American deposits contained every REE, the concentrations for some may be so low that it is uneconomic to extract all of them. Having high concentrations of a small number of metals and very low concentrations of other metals, within the same deposit, is very common. It's just another quirk of geology. Murphy's second law comes to mind - Mother nature is a bitch.

The other thing to consider is America's reserves of REEs is small and finite. Unless it finds something else, once it has mined its resources, it will have to source the metals from elsewhere.

The other thing that needs to be considered are the health and safety and the environmental impacts of mining and processing REEs.

To begin with, all REE deposits contain thorium, some also contain uranium, another quirk of geology. Both thorium and uranium are radioactive. The REEs cannot be mined and initially processed separately.

The other aspect is the chemicals used in the initial processing of REEs and the metals not recovered, such as cadmium, result in the production of toxic tailings dumps.

The US EPA has produced a comprehensive review of the environmental impact of mining and processing REEs.


Edit 22 July 2020

Additional new information, as of today.

Are we ready to recycle the “rare earths” behind an energy revolution?

Ores with high concentrations of rare earths mostly fall into two general categories: igneous rocks and weathered sediments. The igneous ores are mostly carbonatite—an unusual product of magmas rich in carbonate minerals. It’s unusual enough that there’s only one volcano in the world erupting carbonatite lavas today, although others have in the past.

Something like half of current global rare earth element production comes from China’s Bayan Obo mine alone, which features many carbonatites. Southern California’s Mountain Pass mine along Interstate 15 has exploited similar rocks over its on-again-off-again history.

Australia’s Mount Weld straddles the two categories of rock and sediment. The ultimate source of REEs is carbonatite rock, but current mining is focused on the soil and sediment on top of this rock. That soft stuff is the result of weathering that has broken down the bedrock, carrying away some of the less resilient minerals and further concentrating the rare-earth-rich ones. Similar processes are responsible for deposits of ionic clays in China and of mineral sands in India.

The different sources have different ratios of rare earth elements in them.

“In general, all carbonatites are enriched in lanthanum and cerium,” UNLV’s Simon Jowitt told Ars. “So as you go from lanthanum down towards lutetium, basically the concentrations drop off sharply. In the ionic clays, it's the other way around; you get far less lights and far more heavies. But what we actually want is some of the stuff in the middle.”

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