Less than an hour from the glitzy casinos and high-rise hotels of Las Vegas, the miners at Mountain Pass are reviving an industry that nearly disappeared from American soil. This is the only mine in the country devoted to rare earths, elements essential to modern electronics. Rare earths are contained in everything from iPhones to wind turbines to Teslas.
“If there’s going to be an American rare earths industry, it’s gonna be led by us. We’re it,” said James Litinksy, the co-chairman of MP Materials, which owns the mine in Mountain Pass, California.
Shuttered after the previous owner went bankrupt in 2015, MP Materials has spent two years rebuilding the Mountain Pass operation. Two hundred people now work at the mine site, carrying out blasts, trucking the minerals out of the mine and milling them into a powdered concentrate that is packed into dozens of white bags on site.
MP Materials say they supply about 10% of the world’s rare earths, a set of 17 minerals with magnetic and conductive properties that help power most electronic devices. The rest of the rare earths industry is dominated by China, where labor costs are cheaper and environmental standards more lax.
The market for rare earths is expected to grow substantially over the next decade as the world becomes more and more dependent on high-tech products. With Washington and Beijing locked in a trade dispute, some in the US government and private industry want to see the United States develop an alternative supply of these essential elements — first to increase mining of the minerals — and eventually develop refining and production.