ELK CREEK, Neb. — Each new 3,000-foot hole bored into the rolling hills of southeastern Nebraska potentially drills away at a troubling Chinese monopoly.
The drills pull up cylinders of rock in search of exotic minerals like neodymium, praseodymium and ytterbium.
Those so-called rare earths are critical ingredients of your car’s catalytic converter and your computer’s flat-screen display, of smartphones and smart bombs. They make your Prius purr and your lasers shine.
In an age of the digital and the virtual, they are the hard in hardware.
In 2010, the world mined 133,000 metric tons of rare earths. Of that, all but 3,000 tons came from China. In the United States there is but one mine — in Mountain Pass, Calif. — responsible for the entire country’s output.
“There is oil in the Middle East, there is rare earth in China,” said Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1992.
The search for rare-earth-rich veins below the corn and soybean fields near Elk Creek could be the beginning of a long American creep back into the mining of ores that form the innards of high technology.
“We could go without this stuff,” said Matt Joeckel, a University of Nebraska geologist who also works for the state’s Conservation and Survey Division, “if we cared to go back to maybe a 1940s level of technology.”
Global demand for rare earths is projected to climb 8 percent a year, while the Chinese have effectively clamped down the growth of supply at zero.
A U.S. Energy Department report last year warned that supplies were “at risk” of disruption. Limits on Chinese exports could increasingly mean that high-tech equipment made with rare earths will only be made in China.
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