US: Boeing has signed a deal to deploy remote sensing technology to map out US deposits of rare earth elements.
The rare earth family of minerals is the real-life version of the precious element “unobtanium” in James Cameron’s movie “Avatar.” They are used to make everything from military hardware to humble cell phones, but could soon be in short supply as worldwide demand outstrips mining production in China.
The company announced that it will confirm rare earth mining claims held by U.S. Rare Earths, Inc. at locations in Idaho and Montana and also aid in the search for new deposits. This marks the latest step in a global race to hunt down rare earth deposits. China currently supplies as much as 97 per cent of the world’s rare earth oxides, but has recently taken steps to cut back on exports and feed the growing demands of its own industries.
Early lab analyses by Boeing have confirmed “light” and scarcer “heavy” rare earth elements in samples from the U.S. Rare Earths holdings. One of the highest concentrations of rare earth elements appeared in a previously unannounced deposit staked out at North Fork, Idaho. Surveys showed about 5.8 per cent rare earth elements on average within the deposit’s rocks, said Ed Cowle, CEO of U.S. Rare Earths.
“We have found the total rare earth percentage in the North Fork area is much higher than anything we’ve found before,” Cowle told TechNewsDaily. North Fork notably contains large quantities of the rare earth element neodymium – a very magnetic substance used in everything from computer hard drives to wind turbines and Toyota’s Prius hybrid car. Airliners and fighter jets also make use of neodymium. Some North Fork samples showed neodymium concentrations as high as 3.7 per cent.
Boeing also plans to tour U.S. Rare Earths deposits at Lehmi Pass, on the border between Idaho and Montana, and at Diamond Creek, Idaho, in late September.
Boeing’s remote sensing technology will greatly enhance U.S. Rare Earth’s capabilities in searching for new deposits of rare earth elements, according to Cowle. The technology – the details of which have not been revealed – can scan wide areas from airplanes or satellites, and then identify rare earth elements or other substances based upon their spectral fingerprints – electromagnetic emissions that reveal a substance’s chemical nature.
New rare earth mines in the US, Australia, Canada and South Africa won’t start up until at least 2014, based on industry estimates. But major corporations such as General Electric and Toyota are reported to have begun to secure their supplies in case of a shortfall.