Rare earth

The current excitement about so-called rare earth elements reflects their usefulness in electronics, as well as geopolitical factors such as China’s increasing reluctance to sell them cheaply. It could, however, also become a factor in the American West. China is hardly the only place those elements are found.

And as the Herald reported Monday, probably the smartest place to look is in the tailings discarded by old-time miners. Many most likely had no idea what rare earth elements were, and, in any case, had no use for them.

That has all changed. Prices of some key rare earths have increased dramatically in the last few years. As the Associated Press reported, neodymium went from $15 per kilogram in 2009 to $500 in 2011. At the same time, another rare-earth chemical, dysprosium oxide, went from $114 per kilogram to $2,830.

At those prices, reprocessing old tailings makes perfect sense. That is particularly true in that the mining part is already done.

Rare earths are series of elements few of us knowingly encounter or recognize. Even lists of the elements called rare earths vary. Some count only the 15 lanthanides – metallic elements with atomic numbers 57 through 71. Some add the similar elements scandium and yttrium. (Those last two are so named because the first rare earths were taken from a mine in Ytterby, Sweden.) Some count as many as 30.

And the term rare earth notwithstanding, they are not necessarily rare. Some are, but one of them, cerium, is about as common as copper. They can nonetheless be hard to find in that they do not usually occur in a pure form.

Not actually a rare earth element, tellurium is often referred to as one. One of the planet’s rarer elements – said to be about as common as platinum – tellurium is one of the few things that can react with gold. When it forms a binary compound with gold the resulting substance is called a telluride. The hope of finding just that prompted early miners to name the now-famous resort town.

Two years ago, tellurium was also rumored to be the true goal of the then-owner’s efforts to reopen the Mayday mine.

But if current trends continue, it will not be gold but the more esoteric elements that miners will be seeking. The list of uses for rare earths is long and growing. It includes all sorts of aerospace applications, lasers, superconductors, lenses, catalysts for cleaning ovens, flints for lighters, specialized magnets, a wide variety of alloys, PET scans and several kinds of amps. And given the increasing use of technology – and the pace of its development – the number of applications can be expected to increase. That should drive demand and price.

What that might mean for the West is uncertain. Mining has colorful history but left a troubled and ongoing legacy of environmental destruction and pollution. No one wants to repeat that. By the same token, however, a sustained boom in rare-earth prices could be the impetus for renewed mining that could be part of and help fund the cleanup of earlier, messier efforts. Done right, that could be a real benefit.

As with all commodity prices, though, the only real certainty is change. What was throwaway material once is valuable now, but that, too, will change someday.

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