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.
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.
Garmin Ltd., the Olathe, Kan.-based maker of satellite-guided navigation equipment, says it's so far been able to work around the rising rarity of rare earths. Garmin says it's worked with suppliers to develop newer technologies to dodge cost increases.
"We are working hard to design out metals such as magnets," Garmin spokesman Ted Gartner said in an e-mail. "The customer won't notice any changes."
Yet the company avoided specifics for fear of spilling corporate secrets. And some are skeptical that the shortages are simply an engineering problem.
Consider magnet maker Thomas & Skinner Inc. of Indianapolis. It once made specialized magnets using the rare earth neodymium. But the company, which sells to aerospace and defense companies, got out in the 1990s because Chinese manufacturers were driving down prices so rapidly and had much easier access to the raw material.
Instead it makes magnets from aluminum, nickel and cobalt. They're good enough to play a role in Lockheed's air-to-surface Hellfire missiles. But it would like to get back to making neodymium iron boron magnets like those used in America's most common guided bombs. The non-rare-earth equivalent magnet is 10 times as large.
"If it was easy to swap in the different kind of magnets, people would do it. But they don't, because it's not easy," said Ed Richardson, president of Thomas & Skinner.
So his company and others are pressuring the Pentagon to develop more rare-earth sources at home, rather than rely on potential military rival China.
"So far, we're hearing nothing back," Richardson said. "It's a bad time to be asking the government to spend more."
Yet Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado introduced a bill in Congress in April that would create industry loans and speed permitting.
The planet's largest rare-earth refinery sits in Malaysia. It's been shut down by regulators concerned about the disposal of thousands of tons of low-level radioactive material.
Meantime, every Prius hybrid car requires upward of a kilogram of neodymium for magnets in its motor and battery. In early 2010 a kilogram sold for less than $10. Now, the same amount goes for more than $250.
That, in a way, only raises the stakes for what may lie under some rich Nebraska topsoil and whether the carbonatite minerals locked in bedrock are rich enough to justify mining.
"Even if things go well," said Quantum's Dickie, "with permitting and fundraising, it's going to be two, three years down the road. It could easily be five years."
The 17 rare-earth elements are scandium (Sc), yttrium (Y), lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb) and lutetium (Lu).
World mine production of rare earths in 2010:
-- China: 130,000 tons
-- India: 2,700 tons
-- Brazil: 440 tons
-- Malaysia: 350 tons
-- U.S.: 0 tons
World rare earth reserves in 2010:
-- China: 55 million tons
-- Russia: 19 million tons
-- U.S.: 13 million tons
-- India: 3.1 million tons
-- Australia: 1.6 million tons
-- Other countries: 22 million tons
Estimated use of rare earths in the U.S. in 2009:
-- 22 percent: chemical catalysts
-- 21 percent: metallurgical applications and alloys
-- 14 percent: petroleum refining catalysts
-- 13 percent: automotive catalytic converters
-- 9 percent: glass polishing and ceramics
-- 8 percent: phosphors for computer monitors, lighting, radar, televisions and X-ray intensifying film
-- 7 percent: permanent magnets used in weaponry, wind turbines, antilock brakes, cellphones
-- 3 percent: electronics
-- 3 percent: other
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
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