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US mineral companies to tech industry: drill, baby, drill

Sean Hollister
March 10, 2010
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Even if your favorite gadget isn't flaunting them, rare earth metals are vital to all sorts of high-tech gizmos, from your flat-panel TV and computer hard drive to the hefty batteries that power the Toyota Prius. But over 95% of the world's rare earth comes from China; and late last year, China told the world that they'd like to keep the lion's share all to themselves. What will we Westerners do? Well, we could let China continue producing mountains of e-waste on our behalf. But we could also find plenty of rare earth just by digging in our own backyard. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States has over 13 million metric tons of rare earth with concentrated deposits in Mountain Pass, California and Diamond Creek, Idaho. But since the private firms that control those deposits aren't willing to spend the requisite eight years and minimum $500 million to construct a chemical separation plant, Idaho-based U.S. Rare Earths is just sitting on their ore for now, while California's Molycorp Minerals is forced to send their material all the way to China (once again) for processing.

"No one wants to be first to jump into the market because of the cost of building a separation plant," former USGS rare earth specialist Jim Hedrick told LiveScience. Should China's export dwindle and the U.S. feel the pinch, that may change, but for now it's good to know that when the global game of StarCraft tells us "not enough minerals," we'll know exactly where to look.



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