Once-Shuttered California Mine Trying To Transform Rare Earth Industry

"A U.S.-based rare earth supply chain could boost clean energy and electric vehicles — and military weapons."

"In arid southeastern California, just across the border from Nevada, sits the only large-scale rare earth element mine in the Western Hemisphere. Here at Mountain Pass, rocks are dug out of a 1,300-foot pit in the ground, crushed, and liquified into a concentrated soup of metals that are essential for the magnets inside consumer electronics, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, or EVs.* Today, that metallic soup is shipped to China, where individual rare earths are separated before being refined into metals and forged into magnets. But MP Materials, the company that took ownership of the 70 year-old Mountain Pass mine in 2017, hopes to change that. This quarter, MP Materials plans to begin separating rare earths at Mountain Pass — the first time this key processing step will have occurred in the United States since 2015.

MP Materials says that the new U.S.-based rare earth supply chain it is building will be greener than its counterparts in Asia, where the mining and processing of rare earths have created nightmarish pollution problems. Some of its domestically processed rare earths will be used to make alloys and magnets for EVs, and others could help renewables developers build the wind turbines the U.S. desperately needs to decarbonize its power sector. MP Materials’ rare earths could also get used in everything from smartphones to military weapons like drones and missiles.

Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware who studies the global rare earth industry, said MP Materials’ new processing capabilities have the potential to be a “best-case scenario in terms of diversifying the global supply chain and also doing so in a comparably robust regulatory environment.” However, Klinger cautioned that from a sustainability perspective, it’s important to minimize new mining overall. That could mean prioritizing the use of rare earths in clean energy versus military applications, or dramatically ramping up rare earth recycling, an industry still in its infancy."

Maddie Stone reports for Grist June 15, 2023.

Source: Grist, 06/16/2023