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Rare earths: Time for the U.S. to boost production?

March 31, 2011 | 11:14 am

Rareearth

Congress may soon ask the U.S. to ramp up its efforts to snag a larger share of the critical global rare earths supply chain.

Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would direct the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a three-year international assessment of the availability and production of rare earth elements.

The Resource Assessment of Rare Earths (RARE) Act would study known mineral reserves as well as scope out potential undiscovered deposits while analyzing the mine-to-manufacturing process.

Rare earths are present in a growing range of technologies, including military radar systems, wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries, smartphones and more. But China mines 97% of the rare earths used around the world and has recently scaled back exports.

The only operating commercial rare earths mine in the U.S. is the Molycorp Inc. facility in Mountain Pass, Calif., near the Mojave National Preserve just west of the Nevada border.  On Tuesday, the company announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory to develop new ways to create commercial rare earth permanent magnets.

U.S. officials have called the tightening supply of the minerals a strategic vulnerability that could undermine not only national security but also the nation’s burgeoning clean-tech sector. On Tuesday, President Obama stressed the importance of a strong national energy policy during an address at Georgetown University.

RELATED:

As China slashes exports of rare earth elements, U.S. mine digs for more

U.S. to reduce oil imports by a third by 2021, Obama says

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: The Mountain Pass rare earth mine. Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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