China supplies most of the rare earth minerals found in technologies such as hybrid cars, wind turbines, computer hard drives and cell phones, but the U.S. has its own largely untapped reserves that could safeguard future tech innovation.
Those reserves include deposits of both "light" and "heavy" rare earths - families of minerals that help make everything from TV displays to magnets in hybrid electric motors. A company called U.S. Rare Earths holds the only known U.S. deposit of heavy rare earths with a concentration worth mining, according to a recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Light rare earths include the minerals ranging from lanthanum to gadolinium on the periodic table of elements, while heavy rare earths range from terbium to lutetium.
If developed, such deposits could help the U.S. avoid a possibly crippling rare earth shortage in the next decade. China has warned that its own industrial demands could compel it to stop exporting rare earths within the next five or 10 years.
"There is already a shortage, because there are companies that already can't get enough material," said Jim Hedrick, a former USGS rare earth specialist who recently retired. "No one's trying to expand their use of rare earths because they know there's not more available."
U.S. Rare Earths practically stumbled upon its first rare earth deposit at Lehmi Pass, on the border between Idaho and Montana, about 15 years ago. The company founders coveted the area's reserves of thorium - an alternative nuclear fuel - and took little interest in the rare earths that were only used, at the time, in lighter flints and tracer bullets for the military.
Their view changed over the years as rare earths became practically irreplaceable in high-tech products used by millions of people today. The company only recently changed its name to U.S. Rare Earths after staking out another deposit at Diamond Creek, Idaho.
"The fact is, the Diamond Creek property is today, the most accessible, undeveloped rare earth resource with significant [heavy rare earths] that there is in North America," said Jack Lifton, an independent consultant who works with U.S. Rare Earths.
Recent USGS figures estimate that the U.S. holds rare earth ore reserves of up to 13 million metric tons. By contrast, the entire world produced just 124,000 metric tons in 2009 - but it would take both time and money for the U.S. to become self-sufficient in producing rare earths.
Deposits near civilization
The Diamond Creek location has the added advantages of being in mining-friendly Idaho and having access to nearby highways and power lines - factors that would make opening a mine much easier.
"We have power, light and roads, so we're not in the middle of the wilderness," said Ed Cowle, CEO of U.S. Rare Earths.
Cowle hopes to attract enough funding over the next six months to do some exploratory drilling at his company's deposits. He also pointed to growing interest from national legislators in prodding the federal government to take action.
"Many times opening a mine takes a certain period of time, but if there's a strategic need for material from government, that time period can be lessened," Cowle told TechNewsDaily. "We're hopeful of that because of the nature of what's in the ground."
An expensive proposition
Another company, Molycorp Minerals, has already begun processing "light" rare earths, such as lanthanum and neodymium, from a stockpile it accumulated at its mine in Mountain Pass, California. But it still has to ship its rare earths to China for final processing, because only China currently has the equipment needed for the job.
"No one [in the U.S.] wants to be first to jump into the market because of the cost of building a separation plant," Hedrick explained. The former USGS specialist said that such a plant requires thousands of stainless steel tanks holding different chemical solutions to separate out all the individual rare earths.
The upfront costs seem daunting. Hedrick estimated that opening just one mine and building a new separation plant might cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion and would require a minimum of eight years.
Lifton has also suggested that many U.S. companies have not jumped into the market because China's state-owned mines keep rare earth prices artificially low. But if U.S. companies do not begin mining American rare earth deposits soon, they may be left scrambling if China does one day stop exporting rare earths.
But Cowle, the CEO of U.S. Rare Earths, seems hopeful that momentum has already begun building for the U.S. government to encourage development of its own rare earth deposits.
"From what I see, security of supply is going to be more important than the prices," Cowle said.