Here’s the first thing to know about rare earth elements—they’re not very rare. Cerium, an element used in high-tech ovens, is more abundance in the Earth’s crust than copper or lead. Gadolinite, yttrium, scandium and terbium, while not household names, are just some of the rare earth elements that help to power and process several household items, advanced electronics, green technologies, and defense applications, making these anonymous little elements extremely valuable. Mining rare earth elements is costly, dangerous and extremely non-environmentally-friendly, and after the U.S. pulled out of the business in the 1990’s it was left to China to provide tons of rare earth elements to high-tech product manufacturers. The Chinese have since clamped down on their rare earth element business and we’re jumping back into it with a California mine out in the Mojave Desert leading the way. Is the rare earth rush the new Gold Rush? Are we looking at a future Sputnik-style standoff with China? What does California’s rare earth element mine look like and can it be done without too much ecological damage?
Mark Smith, president and chief executive officer, Molycorp Minerals, the only company in the US that currently produces rare earths—located in the Mojave desert, it makes 3% of the earth’s rare earths
Gareth P Hatch, PhD, founding principal, Technology Metals Research, LLC, a market intelligence and analysis firm that focuses on strategic materials such as the rare earths