Looking for Extractable Rare Earths in Virginia

Jun 11, 2014

The elements known as ‘rare earths,’ are a relatively new addition to the periodic table. And they have changed the world, ushering in the new age of technology because of their unique properties. They allow us to make smaller and more efficient devices; everything from smart phones to wind turbines.

In part one of our report, we told you China, which been the largest provider of the exotic metals, has cut back on its exports, causing a worldwide shortage.  But scientists now think similarities between the geology in southern China and the South Eastern U.S. could make this region a new source for rare earths. 

It’s been reported that some wind turbines are standing idle and the high tech industry may face trouble because of the worldwide shortage of rare earth minerals they require. And while rare earths can be found all over the world, they can be difficult and expensive to extract from the minerals that contain them.

“But this very unusual type of clay deposit that the Chinese have discovered has the rare earths loosely attached as ions to the clays," says Nora Foley a researcher at the U.S. Geological survey.

“That makes it very easy to separate the rare earths so it’s a much cheaper and simpler process.”

Foley says the granite rock here, which is very old and has been weathering for millennia, has produced a clay which has a chemistry very similar to that in China, so it stands to reason there may be extractable rare earths as well.

"For an industry that’s mature, like the, clay mining industry, it’s possible they can just add a process to separate the rare earths because they’re already digging up and mining the clays.”

But the idea is so new that a check for those opposed to mining rare earths around here did not pan out.  That doesn’t mean they’re not out there or won’t be if this search proves successful.

“In the eastern U.S. it’s almost certain that any deposit they find is going to be close to if not in someone’s back yard. So that is going to raise a whole host of issues that will have to be resolved before mining can begin.”

Neil Johnson is geology professor at Virginia Tech.

"The things that people tend to be concerned about, of course, are pollutants. – You know, what of this material is going to be put in the air or in the ground. How is this going to reshape the landscape?  The clay type deposits are attractive from one end because while rare earths tend to absorb to the clays, radioactive elements like uranium and thorium do not, so the trace amounts of radio active material are weathered away and are gone naturally, before you even get to extracting the rare earths from the clays.”

Other ideas have been put forth for coping with the shortage in rare earth minerals including; mining our recycling piles and re-using rare-earth elements from discarded products; Or looking for new ways to make the high tech devices that have become ubiquitous in our society without the exotic metals. A California rare earths mine has now reopened after China put it out of business in 2002. And the search is on at an estimated 450 potential sites around the world. But scientists here are looking very closely at Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.

“It may go nowhere. Research projects go nowhere all the time. That’s one facet of science that people often don’t realize and that’s that research projects just don't pan out-- there isn’t the ‘Journal of Failed Studies’ to publish them and there may be nothing to come out of the search for rare earths in the southeast. By the same token, given the similarities to that Chinese deposit it could be an absolute bonanza.”