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China Government Science Technology

US Gives $120M For Lab To Tackle Rare Earth Shortages 170

Posted by samzenpus
from the making-rare-more-common dept.
coondoggie writes "With China once again playing games with the rare earth materials it largely holds sway over, the U.S. Department of Energy today said it would set up a research and development hub that will bring together all manner of experts to help address the situation. The DOE awarded $120 million to Ames Laboratory to set up an Energy Innovation Hub that will develop solutions to the domestic shortages of rare earth metals and other materials critical for U.S. energy security, the DOE stated."
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US Gives $120M For Lab To Tackle Rare Earth Shortages

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  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:48AM (#42544049)

    Ocean mining is not necessary because there is no particular shortage of rare earth ore. China is not the leader because they have the only rare earths, but because low labor costs made it cheaper to mine them there. Since they began to impose export restriction, rising prices have enabled operations to restart in several mines, including the Mountain Pass Mine [wikipedia.org] in California.

    But reducing the need for rare earths is also a good idea, so the research being funded makes sense. However, just handing out grants is the wrong approach . It would be much better to set out the goals and offer specific awards for achieving them. Competitive contests, like the DARPA Grand Challenge [wikipedia.org], the Ansari X Prize [wikipedia.org], and the Google Lunar X Prize [wikipedia.org], have been far more effective at achieving results than grant based funding.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:48AM (#42544053)

    Surely it has to be more feasible than capturing an asteroid to mine though?

    E.g.:
    http://tech.slashdot.org/story/12/04/21/229248/billionaires-and-polymaths-expected-to-unveil-a-plan-to-mine-asteroids
    http://science.slashdot.org/story/11/08/31/1656237/chinese-want-to-capture-an-asteroid

  • Re:Politics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:57AM (#42544083)

    It's about high time that we have bipartisan support for energy independence. It's time for both political parties to pull their thumbs out of their collective arses and get it done!

    It is being done. The USA is already self-sufficient in natural gas, and falling gas prices are causing gas to displace coal for electricity generation. Fracking technology, developed for gas, is now being applied to oil, with very successful results. By 2020 the USA is expected to surpass Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer in the world. All of this is because US politicians have done something that they have so often failed to do in the past: stay out of the way.

  • by flightmaker (1844046) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:03AM (#42544101)
    According to an article in Popular Mechanics (page 60, January 2013 issue) a company called Molycorp is running a re-opened rare earth mine in the Mojave Desert, forecasting "By mid 2013 the mine will have the capacity to produce 40,000 metric tons anually".
  • by MACC (21597) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:03AM (#42544103)

    The US has sufficient resources.
    see:
            http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/rare_earths/mcs-2012-raree.pdf [usgs.gov]

    Political interest actually is about getting _cheap_ access to china's resources.

  • by Luckyo (1726890) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:09AM (#42544109)

    Not so much about cheap labour as it is about less stringent environmental standards. The biggest cost of rare earth mining is keeping it as clean as regulations require and China has large areas which are completely and utterly poisoned by rare earth mining.

    That's in fact one of the reasons (and the main official reason) why China is currently restricting rare earth exports. Mining and refining rare earths is a very toxic process.

  • by balsy2001 (941953) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:56AM (#42544253)
    The other idea that gets thrown around a lot is to make them in a reactor. I used to work at a DOE facility where every year or so we would be asked about this specific problem and if we couldn't just make X isotope. Sure you can make all kinds of elements through transmutation, but the volume of production is just not very high unless you have massive amounts of infrastructure to create them (lots of reactors specifically for the task) and for most things special chemical facilities to separate all of the various radioactive stuff out (if you put in a specimen X you don't just get 100% of Y after a certain amount of time, and because of special DOE moratoriums it would be nearly impossible to "free release" any of this material for commercial/industrial use). That is why generally speaking it only makes sense to produce a limited number of elements in this manner, usually ones you don't need a lot of and ones you specifically want to be radioactive (there are some medical isotopes and cobalt sources for imaging where this does make sense and is done).
  • Re:Politics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by turp182 (1020263) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @08:51AM (#42544479) Journal

    I agree on all points but that of oil. Fracking depends on high oil prices, otherwise it isn't economically viable (don't expect the price of gas or oil to come down). As well, those fracked wells show much faster production declines than traditional oil wells, on an individual basis they decline pretty fast. Environmental concerns are also pretty big, may as well be mining rare earths...

    For more info regarding fracking and the "more oil than Saudi Arabia" propaganda (at best that's what it is, at worst it is completely uninformed...), this article goes over the basics:
    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/9753 [theoildrum.com]

    The Oil Drum has many other more detailed articles as well.

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