Each new 3,000-foot hole bored into the rolling hills of southeastern Nebraska potentially drills away at a troubling Chinese monopoly.
The drills pull up cylinders of rock in search of exotic minerals like neodymium, praseodymium and ytterbium.
Those "rare earths" are critical ingredients of your car's catalytic converter and your computer's flat-screen display, of smartphones and smart bombs. They make your Prius purr and your lasers shine.
In an age of the digital and the virtual, they are the "hard" in hardware.
In 2010, the world mined 133,000 metric tons of rare earths. Of that, all but 3,000 tons came from China. In the United States there is but one mine -- in Mountain Pass, Calif. -- responsible for the entire country's output.
"There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China," said Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1992.
The search for rare-earth-rich veins below the corn and soybean fields near Elk Creek could be the beginning of a long American creep back into the mining of ores that form the innards of high technology.
"We could go without this stuff," said Matt Joeckel, a University of Nebraska geologist who also works for the state's Conservation and Survey Division, "if we cared to go back to maybe a 1940s level of technology."
Global demand for rare earths is projected to climb 8 percent a year, while the Chinese have effectively clamped down the growth of supply at zero.
A U.S. Energy Department report last year warned that supplies are "at risk" of disruption. Limits on Chinese exports could increasingly mean that high-tech equipment made with rare earths will only be made in China.
General Electric led a small parade of American manufacturers testifying to Congress this month urging the country to spur its own production.
At stake isn't just the ability to make a better cellphone (tiny magnets make for tiny speakers) or a sharper television picture (the phosphor red in screens comes from europium). The elements are critical to oil refineries and cutting-edge medical care. And rare earths play a growing role in making our modern military more modern.
Without rare earths, satellite-guided bombs would weigh three times as much. A hybrid motor contemplated for a new class of naval destroyer would be in jeopardy. Night-vision goggles would go dark.
Some in Congress have suggested the country's national security is threatened if supplies run too short.
Clumped mostly at the bottom of the periodic table, the 17 rare-earth elements range in color from silver to gray. They are not truly rare. Cerium, for instance, is three times as abundant in the Earth's crust as lead.
Still, rare earths are often found mixed with other ores, and it's rare to find concentrations that make mining profitable.
The story of the deposits in southeast Nebraska dates back perhaps 500 million years, when underground volcanic activity spilled lava into subterranean pathways. That magma cooled quickly and left an unusual deposit of carbonatites laced with rare earths.
Some 50 years ago, state geologists surveying southeast Nebraska found two oddities around Elk Creek. The rocks were more magnetic than most, and were denser.
Those findings drew the attention of mining company Molycorp Minerals in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It drilled holes across the landscape and pulled out 90,000 feet of core samples.
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