The enigmatic rare earth elements paradox
American REE mining on the rise, yet 100% reliant on imports Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – February 12, 2020
Last updated 2/18/2021 at 11:05am
American mines produced roughly 26,000 tons of rare earth during 2019, a 44 percent increase over 2018, yet the United States is 100 percent reliant on foreign countries for its supply of these 17 elements vital to our modern high-tech society. This apparent paradox speaks to the complexities of these enigmatic metals.
The irony of rare earth elements (REEs) begins with their name, which is at the same time a misnomer and accurate descriptor.
"All the REEs except promethium are more abundant than silver, gold, or platinum in Earth's crust, on average. Thus, REEs are not rare in terms of average crustal abundance, but concentrated and economic deposits of REEs are unusual," the U.S. Geological Survey penned in a 2018 report on critical minerals.
The good news is that economic REE deposits typically host some combination of all 17 REEs except promethium, which is an unstable element with the naturally occurring abundance in Earth's crust estimated to be less than 600 grams at any given time.
According to the USGS, potentially economic deposits containing around 2.7 million tons of rare earths have been identified in the U.S. Currently, the Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert is the only domestic operation to produce these elements.
Well, almost produce these elements.
While finding economically viable deposits of rare earths is not easy, the real complexity comes with separating these notoriously tightly interlocked elements into useable metals.
Aside from a Malaysian plant operated by Australia-based Lynas Corp., all rare earth separation facilities are currently located in China.
This gets to the heart of why rare earths are mined in the U.S., yet the country is 100 percent dependent on imports for the metals.
Once mined, the rare earth concentrates produced at Mountain Pass are shipped to China to be separated into the individual elements. American manufacturers then buy rare earth metals and compounds from overseas.
From 2015 through 2018, roughly 80 percent of these rare earth materials were acquired from China, 6 percent from Estonia, 3 percent from Japan and 3 percent from Malaysia.
President determines REEs critical
In order to ensure that the U.S. military and private sector has a reliable and domestic source of the enigmatic rare earths, President Donald Trump and his administration, however, have laid out a strategy to bolster domestic mining and separation of rare earths on U.S. soil.
Last year, Trump used his authority under Title 3 of the Defense Production Act of 1950 to make five presidential determinations that domestic production, separation and manufacturing of this suite of high-tech metals is "essential to the national defense" of the U.S.
The president sent requisite determinations to the Pentagon and Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs that makes the case that each of the five segments of the U.S. rare earth supply chain meet the criteria set out under the Defense Production Act.
"Without presidential action under section 303 of the act, United States industry cannot reasonably be expected to provide the production capability for rare earth metals and alloys adequately and in a timely manner," Trump penned in the memos.
The language in all five presidential determination memos was effectively the same, with each relating to different links of a U.S. rare earth supply chain, from mines to magnets.
These memos address domestic:
• Production of rare earth metals and alloys.
• Separation and processing of heavy rare earth elements.
• Separation and processing of light rare earth elements.
• Production of neodymium-iron-boron rare earth permanent magnets.
• Production of samarium-cobalt rare earth permanent magnets.
Light rare earths make up the first seven elements of the lanthanide series of elements, which are found near the bottom of the periodic table.
The remaining eight lanthanides are considered heavy REEs, which are less abundant in most deposits and tend to be more valuable.
Scandium and yttrium, which are not lanthanides, are typically found in rare earth deposits and are often grouped with the heavy REEs.
More information on rare earth elements can be found at A tale of two rare earth countries in the Jan. 29 edition of Metal Tech News.
Pentagon mobilizes REE recon
Before the ink could dry on the presidential determinations, the Pentagon was mobilizing to gather reconnaissance information on the state of America's rare earth mining and separation potential.
In July, the U.S. Air Force sent out memos asking the mining sector to provide plans for developing mines and processing facilities in the U.S. These memos also queried manufacturers about their requirements for this group of 17 essential elements.
A recent Pentagon report estimates that roughly 920 pounds of rare earths go into each F-35 fighter; 5,200 lb go into every Arleigh Burke DDG-51 destroyer; and a single SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine requires 9,200 lb of these strategic metals.
This puts the U.S. Department of Defense in the uncomfortable position of depending on a strategic rival for key ingredients of its military hardware.
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said domestic mines is not the primary hurdle for securing reliable supplies of rare earths for the wide array of military hardware and equipment that rely on the unique properties these enigmatic elements offer.
"The challenge is really the processing of them and having facilities to do that because quite often China mines them elsewhere and brings them back to China to process them," Lord said in August. "So, we are looking at a variety of mechanisms to stand up processing facilities."
In November, the U.S. Army sent memos to a select group of companies that are advancing potential U.S.-based rare earth processing plants requesting information on the costs to develop separation facilities that can produce heavy rare earths, which tend to be the least abundant but most highly prized of the 17 elements that fall into the REE category.
The Army said it is looking into funding up to two-thirds of the costs required to establish at least one domestic facility that can separate these heavy rare earths into the individual metals needed for military hardware.
These queries by separate branches of the military seem to be part of a larger potential Pentagon-private sector partnership to establish a complete "mines-to-magnets" REE supply chain in the U.S. and break China's near monopoly on the production of REEs.
It is expected that the mining sector responses to these Pentagon requests, coupled with President Trump's Defense Production Act determinations related to the domestic production of rare earth metals and magnets, will result in millions of federal dollars being invested in securing a long-term domestic supply of rare earths and the capacity to separate these 17 elements needed by the U.S. military and private sector alike.
Heavy rare earth players
Two companies with rare earth deposits in the U.S. – Texas Mineral Resources Corp., which is advancing the Round Top critical minerals project in western Texas, and Ucore Rare Metals Corp., which owns the Bokan Mountain REE project in Southeast Alaska – already have plans to develop processing facilities related to their proposed rare earth mines and have expressed intentions to respond to the Army request for information.
According to a preliminary economic assessment published in July, a mine at the Round Top project in Texas would produce 2,212 metric tons of rare earths per year, including healthy supplies of heavy rare earths the Army is seeking, such as yttrium, dysprosium and scandium. According to current calculations, the deposit at Round Top is large enough to supply REEs at this rate for nearly 140 years.
"Given the projected 100-plus-year mine life, Round Top has the unique potential to serve as a reliable long-term partner to both the U.S. government and multiple essential industries," said Texas Metal Resource Chairman Anthony Marchese.
Texas Mineral Resources and funding partner USA Rare Earth announced they are currently working on a pilot plant to separate and purify rare earth and other tech metals leached from Round Top mineralization.
The Dotson Ridge deposit at Ucore's Bokan Mountain project hosts 79 million metric tons of indicated resource averaging 0.6 percent (63.54 million pounds) total rare earth oxides. While not particularly high-grade, roughly 40 percent of the rare earths at Dotson Ridge are classified as heavy REEs, which is what the Pentagon is particularly interested in.
In recent years, Ucore's primary focus has been on developing new processes for separating the heavy rare earths, both from Bokan Mountain and other non-Chinese sources. This work has resulted in the Alaska Strategic Minerals Complex, a rare earth separation facility the company is proposing to build near Ketchikan, a port town in Southeast Alaska.
Ucore Rare Metals Chairman Pat Ryan said the Pentagon's interest in heavy rare earth separation "fits hand-in-glove" with the company's plans for a mine and separation facility in Southeast Alaska.
According to Reuters, a joint venture between Lynas Corp. and Blue Line Corp. has also been invited to submit a proposal to the Army.
Lynas operates a processing facility in Australia that separates the light rare earth elements, currently the only one outside of China, and Blue Line Corp. is a privately held chemical company based in Texas.
The primary focus of Lynas-Blue Line partnership is the same subset of rare earths that the Army is interested in investing in.
"The group of materials we're looking at doing are the heavier rare earth materials and there's no commercial plant in the world that is actually separating these materials other than inside China," Blue Line CEO Jon Blumenthal told Fox Business' Lauren Simonetti last year. "And these are very strategic materials that are used for a number of high-tech and defense applications."
White House and Pentagon backing of REE separation could resolve America's rare earth import-export paradox but will likely not make these high-tech metals any less enigmatic.