Rare Earth Production Rises At Molycorp’s Mountain Pass Mine

(February 3) Greenwood Village, Colorado-based Molycorp, Inc. this week reported that rare earth production in the fourth quarter of 2014 at its Mountain Pass Mine near the eastern extreme of San Bernardino County increased over that during the similar period in 2013 and nearly doubled that of the preceding quarter.
The Mountain Pass Mine completed the fourth quarter of 2014 with 1,328 metric tons of rare earth oxide equivalent production. That compares to 1,034 metric tons in the fourth quarter of 2013 and 691 metric tons in the third quarter of 2014. Full year 2014 production totaled 4,785 metric tons, compared to 3,473 metric tons in 2013. Per-unit cash production costs at Mountain Pass also declined sequentially in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Molycorp has intensified its effort to have the United States reassert itself as a major producer of rare earth minerals, based primarily on its mining operations in a remote area of San Bernardino County.
In recent decades, China has become the predominant supplier of rare earth metals. Molycorps is making strides in challenging Chinese rare earth production primacy.
Rare earth minerals, also known as lanthinides or rare earth metals, are a set of seventeen chemical elements, specifically scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, gadolinium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, and ytterbium. They have a number of critical industrial and technical uses and applications, including serving as components in mercury-vapor lamps. high-temperature superconductors, lasers, microwave filters, high refractive index glass, hybrid electrical vehicles, flint products, battery-electrodes, camera lenses, carbon arc lighting, didymium glass used in welding goggles, polishing powder, ceramic capacitors, nuclear batteries, rare-earth magnets, memory chips, red and blue phosphors, green phosphors, fluorescent lamps, vanadium steel, x-ray machines and infrared lasers. Rare earth elements also facilitate hydrogen storage, fluid catalytic cracking, creating violet and yellow colors in glass or ceramics, catalyzing the refining of petroleum, oxidizing chemicals, neutron capture, and contrasting magnetic resonance images.
Company officials said that the higher production volumes they expect at Mountain Pass in 2015 should coincide with relatively strong demand the Company is seeing for products such as the magnetic rare earth material neodymium/praseodymium, lanthanum, and light rare earth concentrate (“LREC”).
According to a statement from the company, “Molycorp processes Mountain Pass LREC at vertically integrated downstream processing facilities into a variety of value-added engineered materials, including rare earth magnetic materials for multiple downstream markets and vehicle emissions catalysts that consume cerium and other materials.”
The company said that its onsite chlor-alkali plant at Mountain Pass is performing well in producing hydrochloric acid, a key chemical reagent used in rare earth production at Mountain Pass. Moreover, commercial availability also has improved, such that hydrochloric acid currently is no longer a significant constraint to production.
According to the company statement, “Molycorp’s Chlor-Alkali plant helps to lower cash production costs by generating chemical reagents onsite, reducing waste water disposal costs, and further shrinking the environmental footprint of rare earth production.”
Molycorp officials reported that repairs of construction-related issues with the facility’s newly expanded leach system are ongoing. Once fully operational, that system is expected to increase rare earth production and lower operating costs.
“We were pleased to see our production increase in the fourth quarter relative to the preceding quarter and year-on-year,” said Geoff Bedford, President and CEO of Molycorp, Inc. “Optimization at Mountain Pass is ongoing, but our fourth quarter production demonstrates momentum in the right direction. Rare earth pricing softened in the fourth quarter with market uncertainty surrounding release of final details of China’s ongoing reforms to rare earth mining, separation, and export regulatory policies. However, given the relatively strong internal and external demand we are seeing for many Mountain Pass products, continuing to boost production there is a top operational priority.”
Because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms.
Until 1948, most of the world’s rare earths were mined in India and Brazil. In the 1950s, South Africa became the leading supplier of rare earth metals.
In 1949, the Mountain Pass Mine, which lies in the extreme northeast portion of San Bernardino County roughly 15 miles from the California-Nevada state line, was discovered by a uranium prospector. The Molybdenum Corporation of America bought the mining claims, and small-scale production began in 1952. Production expanded greatly in the 1960s, with the Mountain Pass facility becoming the world’s dominant producer of rare earth elements. From 1965 until 1995 it was an almost exclusive supplier of europium, which is used in color television screens. The Molybdenum Corporation of America changed its name to Molycorp in 1974 and was acquired by Union Oil/Unocal in 1977.
Unocal was served with an environmental cleanup order relating to the facility and sued by San Bernardino County’s district attorney’s office in a civil lawsuit. The company paid more than $1.4 million in fines and settlements and the mine was shut down in 2002, at which time China eclipsed the United States as the leading supplier of rare earth metals. After Unocal in 2004 obtained a new operating permit for the mine, it was acquired the following year by the Chevron Corporation.
By 2005, 96 percent of the world’s rare earth elements were mined in China. In 2007, China restricted exports of rare earth elements and imposed export tariffs. In 2008, Molycorp Minerals LLC, based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, was formed to revive the Mountain Pass Mine, and acquired the operation. On July 29, 2010, Molycorp, Inc. became a publicly-traded firm by selling 28,125,000 shares at $14 in its initial public offering. On September 22, 2010 China quietly enacted a ban on exports of rare earths to Japan. Later that fall, Congress passed legislation to subsidize the revival of the American rare earths industry, including the reopening of the Mountain Pass mine.
Initially, Molycorp lost money. But by the second quarter of 2011, the company was showing a profit. Molycorp acquired processing facilities in Arizona and Estonia. In March 2012, Molycorp Inc. acquired Neo Material Technologies Inc., a Canadian rare earth processing company, for $1.3 billion.
On August 2012, Molycorp initiated Project Phoenix at the Mountain Pass Mine, which included the addition of an on-site combined heat and power plant, which is now providing low-cost, high-efficiency electrical power and steam for the company’s extraction of heavy rare earth concentrate ore which is then processed into high-purity, custom-engineered rare earth products at Molycorp’s production facilities.
Within short order it is anticipated that the mine will be the major source of the world’s bastnäsite, calcite, barite, dolomite, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium and Europium.

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