Rare Earth Elements, Alaska, China, And Us: Closer Look At The Growing Picture
By Kathryn G. Arlen
From food freezers to intricate auto power parts, from laptops to explosively evolving cell phone technology, rare earth elements have most rightfully earned the designation “Secret Ingredients of Everything,” as National Geographic (June, 2011) dubbed them. And, although the “rarest REE is nearly 200 times more abundant than gold,” (Nat’.l Geog.) the scarcity of economically feasible mining deposits creates the true meaning for their most appropriate “rare” reference.
Here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) two graduate students, Charles Bohart and Elliot Thorum, developed their own independent research program investigating the REE status in the state of Alaska and recently presented their findings to the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Natural Resources Committee. As is common realization in our state, they verified that “one of the issues in developing and exploring some of these [REE] is just a lack of infrastructure and lack of access,” as Thorum began. “For the most part in Alaska, if there is a deposit or reserve more than 50 miles away from a major transportation corridor, then it becomes un-economic.”
Though their original research intent focused on “looking at rare earth elements on a global scale,” the graduating mining engineers soon targeted their efforts into providing more specific analysis, providing suggestions and guidance towards enhancing Alaska’s REE potential. Three critical considerations arose: infrastructure, public attitude, and China—always China.
First, let’s take a look at transportation needs. “What I don’t think has really been looked at is the possibility of barging down the rivers, the Yukon, for example,” Thorum explained. “But then you can only barge things three or four months out of the year, so you’d have to stockpile. We need to improve this type of infrastructure.” Then there is rail, as Bohart continued. Considering the large tonnage involved with rare earth elements (much surrounding waste rock if no on-sight processing is available,) “…rail infrastructure would be the best for these large deposits,” he emphasized. “Rail shipping is also rather secure, too. With our state security being what it is, we don’t have to worry about people hijacking trains…it’s [shipment] not going to go to Cuba. We have a politically safe structure.”
Even though much of Alaska is “off limits due to regulations” the researchers identified three major REE areas in this huge state: the Seward Peninsula, Tofty (about 50 miles north of Manley,) and primarily Bokan Mountain in the southern part of Alaska. “And I would say that’s probably the area to be developed the soonest,” Bohart stated. “One of the main things it [the area] has going for it is that it used to be a uranium mine, so a lot of the permitting you’d normally have to go through has already been done. And you’ll need transporting permits since rare earth elements still have a tendency to be radioactive.” Directly connected to transporting issues is processing which ideally should occur on-sight to eliminate unnecessary waste rock. Mountain Pass in California currently possesses this advantage and leads the U.S. in REE production.
But underlying transporting, processing, and permitting issues is still “public sentiment towards mining, which affects everything,” Bohart described. “And I don’t think there’s a good checks and balance system between the Corps of Engineers and the private sector. And the same goes for the EPA—not having a balanced body above them to make them be honest…people avoid them at costs, and sometimes it costs them almost as much as if they had to fight them,” he concluded. Thorum continued, “I think a lot of it is based on philosophy. If you look at the Canadians, for example, even the Australians, they have pretty much decided they are going to be the mineral suppliers of the world, and they’ve done a lot of studies…we don’t have a program like that here in the U.S. since the Bureau of Mines closed in the late ‘80s or ‘90s.” Both men emphasized the need for recreating or reinstating a similar program to better aid our country’s national and international mineral needs.
On the global scale, China currently heads the pack, though even that country faces taxation challenges. China surged ahead of the rest of the world in REE production around the mid ‘80s, almost precisely in 1984 when major political and economic reform began. After initiation of the landmark “Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on Reform of the Economic Structure” (October, 1984,) radical changes not only occurred in the urban area but in the “…less publicized but apparently spectacularly successful program for developing rural industry [i.e. mining, etc.]” (U.S. Library of Congress: China, The Second Wave of Reform, 1984-86.)
“China has 30% of the world’s known REE reserves,” Bohart explained, “and they have cheap labor, cheap power, and aren’t too concerned about environmental regulations, so of course they can offer it to the world for less than we can.” Thorum added, “I think as with everything else with the Chinese, they saw an opportunity.” But can we change this around? According to a recent “Rare Earth Materials Assessment” report from the Office of Under Secretary of Defense (August/2010,) China’s export taxes have increased 10-25% and “…the biggest issue facing domestic RE consumer companies is the need for a stable non-Chinese source for rare earth oxides (REO.) [italics added]” along with “…non-Chinese RE sources that…create a supply meeting the U.S. demand for both heavy and light rare earth elements.”
Considering the global picture, both researchers shared final observations: “I would say the best insight I got concerned economic scarcity as a function of price, and that’s what’s driven the supply to China,” Bohart stressed. Thorum added: “There is a huge need and amount of room for basic science research and development, plus, there’s a lot of application in areas where public funding would provide a much larger return.” But it’s still a matter of attitude, and better public understanding, a perception shift both men agreed can best happen “with the generation that’s in school now.”
Kathryn G. Arlen is a freelance writer and communication consultant in Fairbanks, AK, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org