Rare-earth elements, a group of 17 metallic elements, are integral to the production of many technologically advanced tools and devices.
“The average person would be blown away by how much we interact with rare-earth elements on a daily basis, without even realizing it at all,” said Ryan Castilloux, a geologist and expert on rare-earth elements.
The elements will be instrumental in the U.S. transitioning to renewable energy and electric vehicles, but approximately 80% of the market is dominated by China, Castilloux said.
Outside of China, rare-earth elements are mined at a large scale in only two places.
Fortunately, one of those two places is near Mountain Pass in San Bernardino County, the home of the largest rare-earth mine in the Western Hemisphere.
“The world is rapidly decarbonizing and electrifying, and it’s imperative that we have resilient, adequate supplies of these materials to enable industry and government to move in that direction,” said Matt Sloustcher, senior vice president of communications for MP Materials.
While the elements are valuable, some are concerned about the environmental impacts, as processing 1 ton of rare-earth elements can create up to 2,000 tons of toxic waste. Mining also requires the use of water, which Sloutscher said the mine recycles.
“We want to maximize how efficient we are with our water. A billion liters of water per year from this … facility is extracted and then recycled into the process. For an operation in the Mojave Desert, that’s incredibly important,” Sloutscher said.
Sloutscher added that operating sustainably is important for MP Materials, as “every single resource” used adds to the company’s costs.
“The extent you can be efficient in the use of those resources, for example, like recycling water or generating power and electricity on site, the overall process is more economic,” Sloutscher said.