We live in an age of serious climate change and the urgent need to reduce green house gases. So does coal have a future in this new world of ours? The answer is a resounding “Yes”. This seems inherently wrong and contradictory. There is possible life in American coal in ways that were hitherto totally unknown by most, and unpredicted by the technically savvy. But first, let’s all think about the rare earth elements issues raised in the December Letter. Most will never have heard of, or ever had any need to know of, the Mountain Pass mine (MP Materials is the corporate name) in California. This is the United States’ one and only “technology minerals gold mine”, but without traditional gold. This 60 years old mine has our nation’s highest concentration of rare earth elements. All and every future electric vehicle, wind turbines, your smartphone, a host of critical medical equipment, fiber optic cables, every conceivable type and application of high performance magnets need these rare earth elements.
China has a monopoly of processing and refining 16 out of the 17 rare earth elements from the basic source material. Green energy systems and technology such as wind turbines and electric vehicles are totally dependent on these materials. The good news is that we here in the United States have an abundance of what are categorized as light and heavy rare earth materials. The heavier ones are more difficult and more expensive to refine and are therefore more expensive.
The United States has to end China’s monopoly. It’s that simple. This is a national strategic issue. It cannot be ignored by delaying major policy actions, supporting the massive investment required and setting up the necessary government architecture with the right highly qualified technically and financially capable people. These are not tasks for the average run of the mill government civil servant. It’s a little like the Manhattan Project. Only the best and the brightest will do. No more, no less.
We need to expand mining and refining The process is extraordinarily complex: X-Ray fluorescence is used with GPS coordinates to determine the presence of rare earth elements in the boulders fed into the grinders. Mines are in business to make a profit. The money makers are the materials that go into the manufacture of high performance magnets – Neodymium (Nd), dysprosium (Dy) and samarium (Sm) are three key materials that most people have naturally never heard of. But, they are critical for all our well being.
Boulders are reduced to 100-micron particles, and various chemical processes yield the rare earth materials from the massive waste. The rare earth materials float to the top. The United States has to, as a matter of urgency, to both encourage and support the building of refining facilities in those areas where it is known rare earth elements exist in abundance. For example, Round Top Mine near to El Paso, Texas, is getting on board. Investors recognize that, for examples, lithium and gallium, are critical in the semi conductor chips without which the 5G systems and their successors, could not exist.
So where is coal in all this? There are rare earth minerals in our nation’s abundant coal seams. The US department of Energy has found rare earth elements for examples in Illinois, Northern Appalachia, Central Appalachia, the Rocky Mountain, and in the Anthracite regions of Pennsylvania. The National Energy Technology Laboratory has found typically in these regions rare earth elements deposit s of in excess of 300 parts per million. Kentucky, for example, can potentially witness a total revitalization of its coal mines. A new technology, “Tornado in a Can”, pulverizes coal into a fine dust and then spins the powder to separate the rare earth elements, thus without “burning the coal to obtain the ashes”, clearly a negative, non green process. This is American brain power and investment at work.
The coal seams also contain lithium. We all now know how critical lithium is in our daily lives. American coal has therefore a new and critical lease of life.
The by products of the latest green energy steel manufacturing are rare earth minerals, especially a high concentration of thorium used in manufacturing nuclear fuels. This is just one example of where the United States can in due course create the ways and means to meet the global demand for rare earth minerals, a massive and long term investment that will yield high profits in overseas sales, improving our balance of payments and challenging Chinese dominance in this critical domain. A whole new era should commence where new mines and processing plants are opened in the United States. Eccentric readers should know that the Chinese back in 1987 made it clear that rare earth elements would be the backbone of manufacturing. In the electric vehicle market alone we could see, potentially, where Chinese indigenous demand restricts their exports to the huge detriment of importing nations’ manufacturing bases.
The Middle East was once the focus of the politics of oil and its myriad energy sources for all the things that everyone needs. This has changed, and now we face a new challenge. The London based Polar Research and Policy Initiative has recommended that the Five Eyes Intelligence community set its sights on Greenland’s rare earth minerals. Greenland is believed to hold the world’s largest deposits of undeveloped rare earth materials. China has already invested in Greenland, through a China backed Australian company, Greenland Minerals. This is the “Kvanefjeld” project. The Greenland government is working hard to stop this project.
More than 60% of the world’s solar panels are made in China, and by 2023 China is projected to produce 13 million electric vehicles. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping said, “The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths”. This is a simple and profound statement and we ignore it at our peril. President Biden’s policy for green energy is totally dependent on rare earth minerals. Wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles cannot function without them. In my humble opinion it is a matter of national priority that the President leads in a new rare earth materials strategy and implementation plan for the United States. We can do it. The United States can regain the high ground and become the world leader in rare earth minerals, their mining, refining, and incredible applications across the human experience.
Happy New Year to all Eccentric readers and their families and friends. Let’s all march onwards and upwards in 2022 and, if not already, please do be vaccinated. Anthony Wells.