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U.S. Begins to Forge Domestic Rare Earth Supply Chain

SPECIAL RELEASE: U.S. Begin Forging Rare Earth Supply Chain

Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine and Processing Facility

MP Materials photo

This is the fourth part of a 5-part report on the state of the defense industrial base. Click Here You can download the entire Vital Signs 2023 report.

MOUNTAIN PASS, California — From the smartphone in your pocket to magnets powering a growing number of electric vehicles on the road, rare earth elements are the foundational components for some of the most commonly used technologies today.

But over the last three decades, Beijing has held an iron grip on the world’s supply chain for rare earth elements such that nearly all materials — no matter where in the world they are mined — travel to China for refinement before they can be used in technologies.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the country currently controls almost 60 percent of rare Earth mining operations, more then 85 percent of processing capacity, and more 90 percent of permanent magnetic production.

It’s an issue that poses a vulnerability within the United States’ supply chain and poses potential national security risks, considering Washington’s strained relations with Beijing. Both industry and government will invest in ways to ensure a domestic supply of rare earths as demand for these elements continues to rise.

Despite being classified as “rare,” the 17 different elements known as rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust. The Biden administration considers them one of the strategic and critical materials and minerals for their use in several modern commercial and defense technologies — including smartphones, medical equipment and highly specialized magnets used in electric vehicles, jet fighters and drones.

Linda Chrisey is the program manager at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Because rare earth elements’ chemical properties are almost identical, it can be difficult to separate them and refine them for use in other technologies.

“Two different rare earth elements may be fractions of an angstrom different in diameter — that means it’s very difficult to separate using physical means. The processes that are used right now … can be 100 steps,” Chrisey also noted that the process can be extremely expensive and potentially dangerous due to the use of chemicals to separate and purify metals.

“These are all reasons why it has been difficult to sustain that kind of operation in the United States,” She added.

However, on top of a mountain in the Mojave Desert at the United States’ largest rare earth mine, MP Materials is trying to reverse that trend.

MP Materials hopes to be an industry leader because of the size and capabilities of its facilities. “magnet champion” in the Western Hemisphere, said Matt Sloustcher, MP Materials’ senior vice president of communications and policy.

“What we’re trying to do is build a full magnetic supply chain, and we want to be able to make all the necessary materials and recycle the necessary materials to have that magnetic supply chain,” He said.

Since acquiring the Mountain Pass mine in 2017, MP Materials has revitalized the site’s production of rare earth elements and produces a mixture of rare earth concentrate that contributes around 15 percent of the rare earth minerals consumed each year, according to the United States Geological Survey.

MP Materials will soon no longer need to ship the mixture to China to complete the long process of separating the rare earth elements. The company announced in November, after two years of construction that it is close to opening the Mountain Pass facility for rare earth refinement.

First it must commission assets for the new facility for the second stage of production, which is a process of stress testing the facility’s equipment to ensure it is performing at the rate it was designed for, Sloustcher said during a tour of the ongoing construction at the Mountain Pass mine. He explained that the process would take place in 2023.

“We’re months away from producing refined products,” He said. “It’s really exciting.”

The second stage involves the drying, roasting, leaching, purifying and purifying of the mixture of rare earth concentrate. The rare earths are then fed into one of the towering tanks that is located in a taller building than an American football pitch. He said that a solvent extraction process is used in these vats to separate the mixture into rare earth oxides.

Although it’s just one refinement facility competing against multiple in China, its opening marks a crucial step in the United States’ effort to address its vulnerable rare earth supply chain. According to a Pentagon press conference, the Department of Defense spent $10 million on the $200 million project in 2020.

MP Materials will focus on refining a compound of neodymium and praseodymium — one of the most common materials used to make rare earth magnets — as well as lanthanum and cerium, Sloustcher noted. These elements are classified under the following classifications: “light rare earths.”
The government is pushing for domestic production. “heavy rare earths,” These are harder to refine, but can also be used to create more specialized magnets. The heavy rare earths dysprosium and terbium are required to make rare Earth permanent magnets that can work at high temperatures. Samarium, on the other hand, is used to produce samarium cobalt magnets which are used in aerospace and defense.

“If you don’t have separated rare earths domestically, there’s a point of failure in the supply chain for magnets,” He said.

MP Materials was awarded a contract worth $35 million by the Defense Department in February 2022 for the construction of a facility that will process rare earth elements at Mountain Pass Mine. Sloustcher stated that the heavy rare earths would be refined in another building and that the project is only beginning.

To fully domesticate the magnet supply chain, MP Materials also began construction on the United States’ first rare earth magnetics factory in April 2022. According to the company, the facility is located in Fort Worth, Texas and will be capable of producing around 1,000 tons annually of neodymium iron-boron magnets. It will use rare earth elements that were mined at Mountain Pass facilities.

Because the defense market accounts for just a fraction of the United States’ total demand for rare earths — around five percent — the company is looking to address needs within the commercial industry first, Sloustcher noted.

As the world electrifies itself with highly specialized machines that require rare earth magnets, demand signals for rare earths will rise.

Adamas Intelligence, an independent research firm, forecasts that the world’s demand for rare earths oxides will triple from $15 billion in 2020 to $46 million in 2035.

“The world is electrifying on every front possible — electric vehicles, wind turbines, drones, robots, everything,” Sloustcher spoke. “So the demand picture is very bright, and the supply just isn’t there relative to what most analysts project demand will produce.”

MP Materials has already entered an agreement with General Motors to produce rare earth alloys and magnets for the automobile manufacturer’s electric vehicle programs beginning in late 2023, he said.

“Defense demand alone can’t even stand up a modestly sized magnetics facility,” Sloustcher spoke. “We want to be able to stand up and be able to supply GM and other companies … and if we succeed in doing that, defense demand can be satiated.”

Meanwhile, Chrisey and her team at DARPA are researching ways to secure a domestic rare earth supply chain using a different kind of method — biomining.

Chrisey stated that the Environmental Microbes as a Biological Engineering Resource (EMBER) program, a DARPA initiative, uses microbial and biomolecular engineers techniques to separate and purify rare-earth mixtures, such as the ones found at the Mountain Pass mine. She said that the program was inspired in part by microbes living in volcanic environments and using rare earth elements to survive.

“Because they were exposed to these extreme environments, they were using the rare earths as cofactors for enzymes and they’ve evolved transport systems to pick the elements up from the environment and bring them into the cell and store them until they were needed,” She explained. “Maybe we can figure out how the cells are doing this and exploit that for our purposes.”

EMBER will make use of biomining to reproduce this naturally occurring phenomenon. Chrisey explained that the technique involves microbes to separate an element from a larger mix. The process isn’t fully developed for rare earths due to “poor specificity and selectivity of the microbes” The agency stated that the elements were being used.

The program announced in October that it had selected teams from San Diego State University, Battelle Memorial Institute, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to participate at phase one of its four-year program.

Chrisey stated that each team will choose a source material that contains at most eight different rare earth element. Each team will separate and refine each element from the other using different microbes and biomining methods. She said that each group will be using a unique combination from source material, microbes, and biomining.

One team is working with ore from the ground to partially process mineral sources, while another team is focusing on mined waste. While one team is focusing on microbes as they are found naturally in extreme environments, another group is using a different class of microbes that can grow on methane while also feeding on greenhouse gases.

“We’re thinking about many different levels and how biology could give an advantage in this overall process,” She spoke.

Chrisey stated that Phase 1 of EMBER will be completed by January 2024. DARPA then will decide whether to continue with the second stage. If it does, then the next phase will concentrate on increasing efficiency and scaling of the separation of rare Earths from source rock, and then phase three, which will culminate in a pilot scale rare earth biomining demonstration.

Part 1: Annual Survey Highlights Growing Concerns Over Industrial Base Health
Part 2: Defense Companies Facing Post-Pandemic Workforce Deficiency

Part 3: How Immigration Reforms Could Help Counter China
Part 5: Pentagon makes moves to speed up tech transition – to follow

Topics: Energy

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