China's Monopoly on Rare Earth Elements

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In the early 1950s, prospectors in California were not so much interested in gold anymore.  The atomic age was in full swing and aspiring entrepreneurs were scouring the mountain ranges with Geiger counters, looking for uranium.  Two would-be prospectors of this sort were exploring the Mescal Mountain Range in San Bernardino County about 15 miles from the Nevada border when the needle on their instrument began to jump and the crackling noise that it emitted told them that they had struck something radioactive.  They took samples and sent them to the U.S. Geological Survey offices for analysis, thinking that they'd found a new source of uranium.

When the results came back from the lab, however, the prospectors were disappointed to learn that they had discovered a huge deposit of ore known as fluoro-carbonate bastnäsite, the source of numerous rare earth elements for which there were almost no commercial uses at the time.  In other words, their discovery was essentially worthless.

While the prospectors went elsewhere in their search, the find attracted the attention of geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey, whose business it is to know such things as where very rare elements exist, even when there's no use for them yet known.  They conducted a detailed survey on the unincorporated area known as Mountain Pass, California, and learned that the extent of the bastnäsite deposit was very large, according to a paper published at Cal Poly Pomona entitled "The Mountain Pass Mine."1

One of the original two prospectors, who happened to work for a mining company called MolyCorp Minerals, successfully lobbied his company to acquire the rights to the land, and MolyCorp thereby became the owner of the largest known deposit of rare earth elements in the world at the time. MolyCorp began developing a market for such elements as cerium, which they sold to make lighter flints.

One of the interesting properties of bastnäsite as an ore is that it does not yield a single element, such as iron or uranium. It yields many elements and they're all extremely rare.  Hence the name Rare Earth Elements (REEs).  As technology evolved to produce more and more sophisticated products, chemists, physicists, and engineers evolved the uses of these elements found at the Mountain Pass Mine. Cerium, for example, is the most abundant of the REEs.  It went on to be used to make glass that absorbs ultraviolet light and later to become a critical component in pollution-control systems, such as catalytic converters.  It found uses in oil refineries and became an additive for diesel fuel that helps to promote fuel efficiency...

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