On Special Assignment

Nov 1, 2012 10:59 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News

Demand for rare-earth elements brings new attention to the Bitterroot

MISSOULA- The growing demand for everything from smart phones to sophisticated military hardware is bringing new attention to some of the most remote corners in the United States.

The search for rare earth elements is starting to happen right in our own backyard. High in the mountains in the Salmon River Valley in eastern Idaho, one mining company believes they may be able to find the ingredients that will be keys to our 21st century world.

Some examples of rare-earth elements and how they're used include lanthanum, a catalyst in gas and diesel fuel, cerium in catalytic converters and samarium-cobalt magnets in computer hard drives.

Copper and gold from northwestern mountains helped drive the technology of the 20th century. Now, rare earth elements, geological building blocks extracted from rocks are becoming big business.

Montana Bureau of Mines geologist Kaleb Scarberry says the obscure elements go into things "that are becoming increasingly and increasingly more important to what we need as a society."

The demand is driven by the properties of the 17 rare earth elements, especially their magnetic qualities.

"As technology improves and we make gadgets that are smaller and smaller, and presumably more and more durable, you're going to require components, specifically magnets to keep those tiny moving parts together," Scarberry said.

China has been producing 95% of the rare earth elements.

Now, new attention is being focused on US sources, including an extensive band of rare earth elements extending through the Southern Bitterroot Range, from Lemhi Pass on the south, to Sheep Creek near Darby.

Idaho officials recently granted U.S. Rare Earths, Inc. a permit to do test the middle of that band, north of Salmon in the Diamond Creek drainage.

The company hopes to detail the extent of the rare earth elements, and feasibility of mining, said Dan McGroarty, the president of U.S. Rare Earth. The Idaho deposits are accessible, which is an advantage for manufacture and sale, he said.

"These are not as remote locales as many be the case in other parts of the world. So there's that. There in the U.S. So suppliers in the U.S. can be more comfortable the supply's not going to be interrupted."

Decades of info points to the known sources in the Bitterroot, and the more valuable "heavy metal" rare earths worth thousands of dollars a kilogram.

"Not all rare earths being equally rare, we're looking specifically at properties where those metals, driven by technology applications, by green tech applications and by national security applications are most in need," McGroarty said.

Elsewhere, rare earth extraction has raised an environmental debate. On one hand, windmills and electric cars help the environment. Surface mines may not. But McGroarty says advances in mining would keep a balance.

"These are all environmental advances. We want to take advantage of them by mining these metals in an environmentally safe way."

Bitterroot National Forest and Salmon-Challis National Forest staff are monitoring the issue. But because our region is so vast, knowing exactly what rare earths are out there is still an emerging picture.

Scarberry says quantifying the reserves available takes "a lot of legwork." U.S. Rare Earth's teams will drill through the winter to find at least some of that data.

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