Boeing Launches Search for Crucial Rare Earth Elements

Boeing has signed a deal to deploy remote sensing technology to map out U.S. 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 aerospace and defense giant announced today 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.

"They’re very interested in finding and validating domestic reserves," said Patrick Kennedy, public relations coordinator for U.S. Rare Earths.

This marks the latest step in a global race to hunt down rare earth deposits. China currently supplies as much as 97 percent 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.

New rare earth mines in the U.S., 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 have begun quietly moving to secure their own supplies in case of a shortfall.

Staking out the deposits

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 percent 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 frequent use of neodymium.

Some North Fork samples showed neodymium concentrations as high as 3.7 percent.

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.

Between the Lehmi Pass and Diamond Creek reserves, U.S. Rare Earths holds most of the current known deposits of "heavies" in the U.S., according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

High-tech prospecting

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.

Boeing's decision to bring its technology to bear in the hunt for rare earth elements is not surprising, given that it is a massive end user of the metals.

Rare earth elements remain crucial not only for current consumer products such as cell phones, PCs and TV displays, but also for military technologies.

Tank sights, lasers, radar, missile-guidance systems, satellites and aircraft electronics all use rare earth elements, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office in an April report.

Still, U.S. Rare Earths cautioned that the findings represent just the first step down a long road toward opening new U.S. mines and building new refineries. Rebuilding an independent U.S. supply chain could take up to 15 years, according to experts.

Just one U.S. company, Molycorp, is currently producing rare earth materials from its stockpiles.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.