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Neb. mine find to challenge China’s dominance of vital rare minerals
Elements coveted for high-tech uses
Question of the Day
The Quantum project is the latest example of U.S. attempts to become less dependent on foreign sources for the obscure minerals found in few places on earth, but essential to a variety of modern gadgets.
The U.S. has relied on China for years for the 17 minerals that are defined as rare earths by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Despite having such obscure names as praseodymium, promethium and samarium - no copper or zinc here - they are necessary for such routine contemporary technologies as magnets, laser pointers and miniature electronics, such as iPods.
The U.S. used to produce rare earths through the Mountain Pass Mine in California, but it was shut down in 2002, primarily because of environmental concerns, including the spillage of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water carrying radioactive waste into a nearby lake.
China has emerged as the world’s predominant supplier, controlling 97 percent of the global market for rare earths. In recent years, lawmakers have expressed concerns about China’s “rare earth” dominance, and these concerns were heightened when Beijing temporarily halted exports to Japan last year during a territorial dispute.
Another essential mineral Quantum hopes to mine is niobium, a steel strengthener used by the automotive and aerospace industries.
Using niobium, “you get a thinner, lighter, stronger steel,” Mr. Dickie said. “It’s important to the automotive industry, where they’re trying to get lightened-up vehicles” needed to meet fuel-economy standards without compromising safety.
The U.S. imports most of its niobium from Brazil, and has never mined it at home.
Mineral mining has created many a boomtown in the West over the past two centuries, such as the Klondike gold rush and the copper industry of Butte, Mont. But some places have been left holding the bag, or turned into ghost towns, when the deposits were tapped out, leaving behind environmental damage from storage, mining processes and waste.
Environmental groups have remained silent on the Quantum project in Nebraska, but rare earths are used in many aspects of “green” technology, including hybrid-engine cars and wind turbines.
The Sierra Club of Nebraska has declined to comment on the mine until production begins.
Said Brian McManus, a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, “The project is still in early stages, so we don’t have a lot of detail on it.”
He added that the permits the company has obtained will help to make sure they stay environmentally cautious.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not return requests for comment.
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