The United States Geological Survey (USGS), together with the Department of Energy, are conducting a nationwide investigation to find deposits of rare earth elements, the key component of every modern cellphone, television, wind turbine, MRI machine, and even regenerative breaks in hybrid cars. Their initial findings indicate that these elements might be deeply buried in abandoned gold, silver and copper mines.
The 15 metallic elements, referred to as rare earth elements, are a unique group of chemicals, which are not so rare as such, but occur in extremely limited quantities, making their mining labor-extensive and very difficult. Over the past 10 years, major technological advances have triggered the increasing interest and demand towards this group.
Currently, China is the main exporter of rare earth elements. The country has a full control over the market, placing the U.S., Japan and other major technological manufacturers in a highly dependent position. This became very obvious around two years ago, when China increased the price of Neodymium, an element used in Prius electric motors, from $15 to $500 a kilogram. Similarly, Dysprosium oxide used in lasers and halide lamps can now be bought for $2,830 a kilogram, while in 2010 it costed $114.
This is also one of the reasons for scientists at USGS to search for sources of the elements across the U.S. After conducting extensive sampling of rocks and ores, they were able to identify concentrations of the metals in deposits collected by geologists from Stanford University and Cal Tech in the late 1800s.
Elements such as Indium, used in photovoltaic panels were found in samples collected near two old copper mines. The team from USGS is convinced that although the mines have been long depleted of gold or copper, the old mining tailings piles might contain the hidden treasures. The scientists hope that they will be able to establish locations where rare earth elements are present, based on concentrations of other elements.
According to Alan Koenig, the USGS scientist in charge of the tailings project, the findings outline many new locations where the elements might be preset. Companies like Molycorp are now in charge of exploring the potential locations. Later on this summer, Molycorp is also expected to reopen a defunct mine, which contains around 20,000 metric tons of rare earth elements.
It is true that without the rare earth elements, it is very possible that cellphone technology might have to go back to black-and-white, but it is also true that the USGS is playing a dangerous game.
Abandoned mine tailings are known to contain high concentrations of toxic metals such as mercury, zing, and cadmium previously used to dissolve the gold or the copper during the process of extraction. At many locations, the toxic waste has been sealed in order to prevent leakage of the contaminants in the underground water resources.
A good example is the breaking of the mine tailing waste pond near Coto Donana, Spain in April 1999, releasing toxic sludge into the Guadalquivir River System. The contamination spread at an incredible rate, polluting the wetland of Coto Donana, one of the largest protected wetlands in the European Union and a Ramsar and World Heritage Site.
We can only hope that the USGS investigation does not lead to a major environmental disaster only to satisfy political interests.