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AP: US 'Could Be Sitting on a Gold Mine' of Rare Earth Elements

By    |   Tuesday, 23 Jul 2013 07:46 AM

Valuable rare earth elements could be in plain sight in piles of rubble cast aside from old gold, silver and copper mines, according to The Associate Press.

Rare earth minerals are necessary components high-tech yet ubiquitous devices like cell phones, televisions, and MRI machines. They're used in weapons systems, wind turbines and regenerative brakes in hybrid cars.

China had a monopoly mining and exporting rare earth elements for years. When it decided use that monopoly to jack up prices, the Unite States went on an urgent search of alternative sources.

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That source could be old mine tailings — leftover rock and dirt piles miners left behind in the 19th and 20th centuries in the American West.

"Uncle Sam could be sitting on a gold mine," Larry Meinert, director of the mineral resource program for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), told the AP.

"Those were almost never analyzed for anything other than what they were mining for. If they turn out to be valuable that is a win-win on several fronts - getting us off our dependence on China and having a resource we didn't know about."

Besides raising prices through the roof, China is using rare earth elements as a political tool. For instance, it cut supplies to Japan over a dispute over international ocean boundaries.

"The reason they haven't been explored for in the U.S. was because as long as China was prepared to export enough rare earths to fill the demand, everything was fine — like with the oil cartels. When China began to use them as a political tool, people began to see the vulnerability to the U.S. economy to having one source of rare earth elements," Ian Ridley, director of the USGS Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center in Colorado, told the AP.

Rare earth elements, ranging from 57 Lanthanum to 71 Lutetium, are not actually rare but they're difficult to mine and extract from the earth.

"If we could recycle some of this waste and get something out of it that was waste years ago that isn't waste today, that certainly is a goal," said Alan Koenig, the USGS scientist in charge of the tailings project.

"If I had to venture a number, I'd say we have found several dozen new locations that are elevated in one or more critical metals."

Forbes contributor Tim Worstall said he was not surprised by news that rare earth elements can be found in old mine rubble piles. The biggest surprise, he writes, is that USGS geologists seemed surprised.

If you're looking for the precious elements, you'll naturally look first in piles others have already mined instead of going to the expense digging new mines. There's no shortage of rare earth elements, only a shortage of processing plants to process them.

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Valuable rare earth elements could be in plain sight in piles of rubble cast aside from old gold, silver and copper mines, according to The Associate Press.
gold,rare,earth,minerals
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2013-46-23
Tuesday, 23 Jul 2013 07:46 AM
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