Starting in early 2010, a small Canadian company called Elissa Resources spent more than $1.66 million exploring a hilly scrap of desert dotted with cacti, creosote bushes, and Joshua trees, at the southern tip of Nevada. The company was looking for rare earths: obscure metals with magnetic and luminescent properties which are used in such products as high-efficiency light bulbs, smartphones, and TV screens. The metals are also of enormous value to the defense and renewable-energy industries.
To find them, Elissa Resources employees mapped the landscape and used special devices to figure out where radiation was unusually high. The firm contracted an aircraft to measure the land’s magnetism, surveyed the area from a helicopter, and drilled twenty-one holes to figure out what was down below. But, in 2013, Elissa Resources halted major work at the site. A slump in the rare-earths market has made it hard to attract the investment needed to continue the investigations.
Most of the world’s rare earths are mined in China. In recent years, amid fears that China’s control of the market could jeopardize Western strategic interests, firms such as Elissa pursued deposits elsewhere—in the United States, Kyrgyzstan, Namibia, Vietnam, Greenland, Australia, and other countries. A boom was on. “A geologist would pick up a rock, lick it, and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got rare earths,’ and suddenly you’ve got a rare-earths company,” Gareth Hatch, a co-founder of the market-intelligence firm Technology Metals Research, said. The industry acquired an air of glamour, thanks to the futuristic uses of the metals, and a moniker suggestive of preciousness.
In fact, the rare earths—there are seventeen, and they have baroque names like dysprosium and gadolinium—are not all that rare. Most are more common in the earth’s crust than gold or silver, and they look like ordinary metals. But unlike gold and silver, they are not readily found in minable concentrations; their name derives from the difficulty of separating them out from one another. Nearly all the rare earths had been discovered by the end of the nineteenth century, but their uses were few.
A shift began in 1949, when uranium prospectors carrying a Geiger counter hit upon an unusually radioactive zone in the desert, about sixty miles from Las Vegas. They found thorium, a radioactive metal often contained in rare-earth deposits. In 1950 and 1951, a firm called the Molybdenum Corporation of America (later renamed Molycorp) bought the rights in the area and soon opened a mine called Mountain Pass. In the coming decades, Mountain Pass would provide a significant portion of the rare earths utilized around the world.
With advances in technology, applications for rare earths proliferated. In the sixties, electronics manufacturers discovered that europium and yttrium could produce the red hue in TV sets. The oil industry realized that rare earths could help refine petroleum. Today, magnets that combine neodymium with iron and boron, making them exceptionally strong, are found in wind turbines, electric motors, and headphones. Dysprosium is used in military guidance-and-control systems, and lanthanum in Toyota Prius battery packs.
At Mountain Pass, however, environmental concerns eventually came to the fore. Uranium and thorium are present in nearly all rare-earth deposits, and any high concentrations of these that result from extraction and processing need to be carefully managed. (Nate Lavey, in a recent New Yorker video and infographic project called “The Most Radioactive Place in New York City,” explores the negative consequences of thorium waste.)
Other substances that may be found in the deposits or used to process them—heavy metals, acids, sulphides, fluorides, and more—can leach into groundwater or be blown into the atmosphere as dust. Mountain Pass repeatedly leaked wastewater, which led to investigations from state and local regulators and scrutiny from environmentalists (including a group calling itself PARD, or People Against Radioactive Dumping); in 1998, the local water board fined Molycorp more than four hundred thousand dollars.
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