Keith Long: Rare earth elements in 14 U.S. states

The U.S. has the resources to meet an increasing global need for rare earth elements, according to a late 2010 U.S. Geological Survey report. The ‘rare earths’ are a group of 17 elements used in high-tech products, from cellphones, flat screen TVs and computers, to lasers, satellite components and technologies for alternative energy. Keith Long, of the USGS, is the lead author of the report. He told us:

They’re called the rare earths because when they were originally discovered, they were quite rare.

The USGS report identifies rare earth deposits in 14 U.S. states that are big enough to mine. Despite their name, Long said, rare earths are relatively common, but the process of extracting these elements from the ore they’re contained in is difficult and expensive – it’s both chemically and energy-intensive, he said. But new mining technologies are more efficient, said Long, with less harmful waste. Today, 96 percent of all rare earths are imported from China, said Long.

If we assume that the Chinese continue producing and exporting at the current rate, and we assume consumption continues at the current rate, there’s a supply shortfall.

He said a shortage of rare earths would mean higher prices on things like hybrid cars and wind energy. But as the U.S. considers ramping up rare earth production, environmentalist worry about the hazards from radioactive waste generated from mining it. The USGS report was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense. Long said that the government is concerned about the status of rare earth reserves as a matter of national defense. Long said that it will take several years for new projects to actually get started. He said:

We’re part of the global economy and we have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility to help meet part of this supply need for rare earth elements. Since we’re on cutting edge of a lot of technologies that use rare earths, it stands to reason that we should.

December 27, 2010

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