For many years, I have been a rock hound, searching for semi-precious gemstones and fossils all over Idaho and surrounding states.
On account of this interest, I regularly read publications put out by the Idaho Geologic Survey and scan the news coverage for anything related to Idaho’s below-ground resources.
That is why a specific news story last week caught my eye. The Department of Energy announced that it had licensed a patented membrane-assisted solvent extraction technology to US Rare Earths, Inc., to extract rare earth minerals from waste products and mining operations. The membrane technology was developed by DOE research labs at Oakridge, Tennessee, and the Idaho National Laboratory, including Idaho researcher Eric Pearson. It allows selective extraction of rare earth minerals using a combination of methods that is purported to be easier, less expensive and more environmentally friendly than competing methods.
Rare earth is 17 different minerals used for high-tech products like cell phones, wind turbines, hybrid batteries in cars, important high-tech weaponry, and much more. Contrary to their name, they are not uncommon in the Earth but they are rarely found in sufficient concentrations to mine profitably.
Today, China is the dominant supplier, providing an estimated 95% or so of the world supply, including 91% of the minerals used by American companies. But, China may not be a dependable supplier. In 2010, they cut shipments in retaliation for Japan’s detention of a Chinese skipper. Many U.S. policymakers have expressed concern about depending on the Chinese for components that are critical for so many advanced technology products.
The United States has a single operating mine in Mountain Pass, California, run by Molycorp, a Colorado corporation. But, that mine only produces some of the rare earth and only recently reopened after a hiatus.
While much of the DOE news release with respect to the licensing of its technology to US Rare Earths, Inc., focused on the recycling aspects, I perked up at the reference to use in connection with US Rare Earths’ mining operations, which are predominately in Idaho or on the Idaho/Montana border.
The company, based in Plano, Texas, has acquired the right to mine 140 claims in the Lemhi Pass on the Idaho-Montana border, southeast of Salmon, Idaho, and also in the Diamond Creek area north of Salmon. Included on its board of directors are some heavyweights including former Nebraska Gov. Robert Kerry and General Tommy Franks, who led U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its stock is publicly traded on the OTCBB exchange.
The Lemhi Pass deposits were discovered in the search for uranium after World War II. What was found in the area, near where Lewis & Clark entered Idaho, were large deposits of thorium, a radioactive element that could be used in nuclear reactors (India, in particular, has an interest in thorium for nuclear power) intertwined with in vast veins of mineralization that contain various rare earth minerals. The deposits run across the state border into Montana and don’t contain all of the rare earth that are used. But, the kinds and quantities do have significant potential for commercial use.
One of the problems with the Idaho deposits has been separating the radioactive thorium profitably from the rare earth materials. That has been a factor deterring commercial development. The new DOE process apparently can be used to selectively extract specific rare earth elements from other materials. If so, that technology could play a key role in putting the Lemhi Pass deposits into profitable commercial production.
US Rare Earth has been moving toward commercial production for several years. In 2013 and 2014, the company bored a variety of holes in the Pass to test the quality and quantity of its claims in the area.
In May of this year, the company announced that the samples from various claims in the Lemhi Pass showed forms of rare earth materials that could be processed through a variety of methods, potentially lowering production costs.
With the recent announcement of the technology transfer with DOE, it appears that US Rare Earth is even more likely to move forward into active mining.
Actual mining would be a big deal for the Salmon/Challis area.
The area’s economy has long been dependent on ranching and tourism. But, high paying jobs have been scarce. The large Thompson Creek mine (located southwest of Challis) which mines molybdenum has been one source of good jobs, but falling prices for the metal, used in steel production, have resulted in the mining operation being put on hold.
A new significant employer in the area could provide a substantial economic boost to one of Idaho’s most isolated areas.
Plus, it wouldn’t be bad for Idaho’s reputation if devices like the IPhone, television sets or hybrid cars were made with Idaho rare earth minerals. Actual production is likely to attract national and international attention press attention.
So, keep your eye on future developments in the Lemhi Pass and the surrounding region with respect to rare earth minerals.