Pentagon invests in heavy rare earths
Awards MP a $35M contract for processing at Mountain Pass Metal Tech News – February 23, 2022
Last updated 3/1/2022 at 3:18pm
Part of a much larger critical minerals investment and strategy unveiled by the Biden administration on Feb. 22, the Pentagon has awarded MP Materials Corp. a $35 million contract to commercially separate and refine heavy rare earth elements at its Mountain Pass Mine.
Located in California's Mojave Desert, Mountain Pass is currently the only mine in the United States that produces rare earths, a group of 17 elements critical to a wide array of technologies used for industrial and defensive purposes.
More precisely, this California operation produces mixed rare earth concentrates that are shipped to China to be separated into their individual elements. American manufacturers then buy rare earth metals and upgraded products imbued with these elements from the Middle Kingdom and other overseas suppliers.
At the end of 2020, the Department of Defense committed $9.6 million to restore Mountain Pass' ability to separate and purify light rare earths, a subset of the REE suite that includes the magnet rare earths neodymium, praseodymium, and samarium.
The new $35 million contract awarded under DoD's Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment Program will expand MP's capacity to the separation and purification of heavy REEs, which will make Mountain Pass an American producer of all the rare earths required to manufacture high-performance permanent magnets.
"The ability to mine, process, and refine rare earths at Mountain Pass is foundational to a national effort to secure the U.S. rare earth supply chain," said MP Materials Chairman and CEO James Litinsky. "We thank the Department of Defense for its confidence and support."
This ability to mine and refine the entire suite of rare earths comes at a time when the rapid rise of electric vehicle manufacturing in the U.S. and around the globe is creating massive new demand for the powerful REE magnets that make EVs more efficient.
To ensure that it has a reliable supply of the materials needed to build the electric mobility it envisions, General Motors recently cut a deal to buy REE materials and magnets to be produced at a new facility that MP Materials is building in Fort Worth, Texas.
GM and Pentagon's investments into MP are to help ensure the U.S. has a reliable and secure supply of the rare earths vital to America's economic and national security.
According to the White House, China controls 87% of the global permanent magnet market. In addition to EV motors, rare earth magnets are widely used in high-tech electronic devices, wind turbines, and defense systems.
In addition to American manufacturers depending on foreign sources for these technology metals in an increasingly competitive market, this puts DoD in the awkward position of relying on a potential adversary for key ingredients for its most advanced weaponry.
For example, it is estimated that roughly 920 pounds of rare earths go into each F-35 Lightning II fighter, 5,200 lb in a single Arleigh Burke DDG-51 destroyer, and a whopping 9,200 lb per SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine.
"The U.S. needs to continue to push the scientific envelope to develop secure, reliable, and affordable domestic source critical minerals used in defense and commercial manufacturing in order to reduce its dependence on foreign sources in a time of global economic competition," said Deborah Rosenblum, who is performing the duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Base Policy.
In addition to delivering freshly mined and refined rare earths from Mountain Pass, MP's processing facilities at the California mine will recycle recoverable rare earths from end-of-life magnets and magnet production scrap, increasing the resiliency and environmental sustainability of America's rare earths mines-to-magnets supply chain critical to the Pentagon and American industry.