They're called "rare" earth elements but their uses are anything but uncommon. Make a call with your cell phone and you're using batteries that rely on rare earths. So do the magnets in your computer hard drive, the technology in your MRI scanner, your camera lens, the red coloration in your television screen and just about any other piece of high-tech equipment you might come into contact with.
The high-tech age would not exist as we know it without the 17 rare earth elements listed along the bottom of the Periodic Table.
As a commodity, they're becoming increasingly valuable, but with global supplies dominated by China--and Chinese industry tightening its exports of REEs--officials in the United States are taking a nervous look at the nation's perilous stockpile and beginning to consider rare earths as among the most important resources of the 21st century.
As Jim Sims, spokesman for REE mining company MolyCorp, told CNN in a May 2010 interview: "The Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths."
So, too, does Idaho.
On a rocky, sun-blasted hilltop in the Mojave Desert sits the cradle of the hi-tech age. It was there in the early 1950s that the Molybdenum Corporation of America began mining for a basket of obscure elements: neodymium, cerium, lanthanum and europium.
Referred to as rare earth elements, they are key components in a wide range of industrial processes--from creating powerful magnets to fluorescent lights and lasers--but it was the europium among them that caused the Mountain Pass Mine to really take off; it could be used to create the color red in TV screens.
From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, Mountain Pass was the dominant global source for rare earth elements, represented on the periodic table by 17 tongue-twisting entries, including praseodymium and ytterbium.
Though first discovered in the 18th century, few of the REEs found any widespread use until the rapid technological advancements of the mid- to late-20th century, when scientists discovered that their baffling properties could make possible everything from a color TV set to an orbital satellite.
Today, rare earths are absolutely indispensable, vital to the production of cell phones, computers, defense systems and the batteries of hybrid electric cars. You can't even build a wind turbine without REEs.
Their presence in the ground at Mountain Pass was discovered in 1949. That same year, almost 1,000 miles to the north, many of those same elements were found nestled among large stores of thorium in the geologic underpinning of the rugged Lemhi Pass on the Idaho-Montana border.
They've sat quietly in the mountain slopes around the Salmon River ever since, but a confluence of technological growth and geopolitics is making the Gem State's potential store of REEs more vital than ever.
The United States lost its corner on the REE market in the 1990s, when the Molybdenum Corporation (renamed MolyCorp in the '70s) was forced to shut down the Mountain Pass Mine after a series of environmental foul-ups. At the same time, the Chinese realized the value of REEs and ramped up their own production.
Unhindered by environmental regulations, by the 2000s the Chinese were mining and processing a full 97 percent of the world's supply, glutting the market and vastly undercutting foreign competitors. The United States' output of REEs, meanwhile, has dwindled to zero.
Though MolyCorp is hoping to resume production as early as this year, the Mountain Pass Mine in California has remained shuttered since 1998. Since then, the United States has relied completely on imported supplies of Chinese REEs, and Congress is putting new pressure on opening domestic sources.
Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman has been the leading proponent of getting the United States back in the REE game, introducing the Restart Act of 2010, which gives loan guarantees to mining companies, expedites the permitting process, directs the U.S. Geological Survey to scour the country for more supplies, and sets up long-term contracts with the Department of Defense to buy up the REEs produced by American companies.
The trouble is that REEs--though not necessarily all that rare--don't tend to be found clumped together in a single location. So far, the search for sustainable, compact and accessible sources has been slow going. Prospective sites have been identified in Colorado, Arizona and Texas, though among the most promising is a long vein running from the Lemhi Pass area southeast of Salmon and north to Diamond Creek and North Fork, then into Montana at Sheep Creek.
Two companies--U.S. Rare Earths and Colorado Rare Earths--are aiming to develop all three sites and are working toward a merger that will bring together Colorado Rare Earths' more than 8,000-acre claim in the region with U.S. Rare Earths' prior exploration.