Mine could ease US dependency on China for phone components

A US company has received permission to reopen a large rare earths mine, easing fears that the country was becoming too dependent on Chinese imports of the substances needed for mobile phones, solar cells and other technologies.

While rare earths aren’t actually particularly rare, they are hard to extract, and China currently enjoys a near-monopoly – over 90 percent of rare earths are mined and processed there.

During the autumn, the country warned that it was considering the introduction of stringent export regulations, leading to fears that this could seriously hamper the US tech industry. It’s already raised export tariffs.

But now Molycorp says it’s reopening its Mountain Pass mine in California, with the aim of producing as much as 20,000 tons of rare earths – equivalent to about 20 percent of China’s output.

It’s signed joint venture agreements with Hitachi Metals for the manufacture of neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) alloys and magnets.

“These joint ventures are an integral part of Molycorp’s ‘mine-to-magnets’ business plan, and they move our Company and the United States one step closer to realizing the strategic goal of re-establishing a complete rare earth manufacturing supply chain in the US,” said Mark Smith, Molycorp’s CEO.

Colorado-based Molycorp is the only rare earth oxide producer in the western hemisphere, but currently only produces around 3,000 metric tons of commercial rare earth materials per year. The new mine and processing facility will increase this amount seven-fold over the next two years, producing high-purity oxides, metals, alloys, and permanent magnets.