Molycorp would ultimately walk away from Nebraska. In short, the price of the stuff then just wasn't high enough to gamble on a mine.
A few decades later, a high-tech boom vaulted prices for rare earths upward. Canadian company Quantum Rare Earth Developments came looking at the core samples and reams of data left behind by Molycorp. Joeckel, the Nebraska geologist, had stockpiled it all for safekeeping.
"The value of these things is infinitely higher than it was just a few years ago," said Peter Dickie, Quantum's president and chief executive.
For now, Quantum is looking chiefly to mine niobium. Technically, that's a rare metal, rather than a rare earth, and is a critical agent for building things stronger, lighter and more resistant to heat than more common metals. It's handy, for instance, in jet thrusters. Niobium sold for about $1 a pound in 1970 and now goes for upward of $20.
Quantum, if it mines in Nebraska, will start with niobium while studying whether there's high enough concentrations of rare earths to dig for, too. The company has strong reason to hope the geology is promising. Some rare earths climbed 15-fold in price between 2009 and 2011. Some have tripled in just the past six months.
In a shed a few miles outside Elk Creek, a team of geologists studies meter after meter of core samples the size of thick sausages, noting the depth, the color, the grain of the raw material. They hold metal objects above the rock and see them drawn by the magnetic powers of the ore. They drip on acid to see how it reacts with the samples. They marvel at the fine grain in the material.
"This is unusual stuff," said Andy Hoffman, the project geologist from Dahrouge Geological hired by Quantum. "You don't find it very often."
Nor does the good fortune of a possible mineral find often bless a small town. County commissioner and small-time grocer Scotty Gottula is all but giddy about the prospects.
"Just having these people here while the drilling going on is a real boost," he said. "Now if you get mining, that'll be real money."
Meantime, half a continent away, the same company that passed on Nebraska in the 1980s is cranking up production in California. Molycorp is the only producer of rare earths in the United States. It stopped mining a few years ago so it could retool its processing plant at Mountain Pass - a $530 million overhaul the company calls Project Phoenix.
The new method is a greener process that uses far fewer chemicals and less water while shaving the cost of extracting the minerals from mined rock. The company expects to crank up operations in 2012 and produce up to 40,000 tons a year.
Yet even that added U.S. capacity is largely spoken for, without accounting for growing demand in the country.
"It's been a nightmare," said Donald Geissler, a purchasing manager for small wind turbine maker Bergey Windpower in Norman, Okla. His company needs rare-earth magnets, which have gone up 40 percent in the last year. "We don't know in the near future if anything's even going to be available."
The Consumer Electronics Association has yet to lobby Washington to push for more domestic rare-earth production. The cellphone industry association declined to comment on the rare-earth supply chain. And some manufacturers say that as the minerals become more difficult to buy, they're searching for alternatives.
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