MOUNTAIN PASS, Calif. — Atop an arid mountain about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, an excavator scooped up giant boulders mined from a nearby open pit and dumped them into a machine designed to reduce them to pebbles about the size of a marble.
Down in the pit, some 500 feet below, miners were preparing explosive charges that would blast basalt out of the mountain later that afternoon. Inside that rock were rare earth minerals, 17 different elements valued as building blocks for some of today’s most ubiquitous technologies — everything from electric cars to smartphones.
Despite all the activity and the dozens of workers moving tons of material at the site, Michael Rosenthal, chief operating officer of MP Materials, said mining is only about 10 percent of what the company did there.
“The rest is chemistry,” he said.
The Mountain Pass mine has existed for some 60 years and is the only one of its kind currently in operation. It’s renowned for its high concentration of rare earth elements, sometimes called the “technology minerals.”
The elements that occupy 17 spots on the periodic table are categorized as “strategic minerals” by the U.S. government and therefore considered vital for national defense.