The unincorporated community of Mountain Pass, California, has little to recommend it to tourists. A scraggly outcrop of rocks and Joshua trees alongside Route 15, it has no kitschy landmarks like the 134-foot-tall thermometer that nearby Baker, California, installed in the Mojave Desert, and no casinos like Las Vegas has an hour up the road. But behind a Band-Aid-colored industrial gate lies an attraction of sorts: a 55-acre open-pit mine created by a 21st-century gold rush, one result of the effort to keep the world from getting hotter than it already is.
Mountain Pass’s mine contains a rare-earth ore that yields neodymium, the pixie dust of green tech—necessary for the lightweight permanent magnets that make Prius motors zoom and for the generators that give wind turbines their electrical buzz. In fact, if we are going to make even a few million of the hybrid and electric cars that are supposed to help rescue the planet from global warming, we will need to double production of neodymium in short order.
But in 2006, nearly all of the world’s roughly 137,000-ton supply of rare-earth oxides came from China. And over the past few years, China has cut exports to nurture its own permanent-magnet industry, sending the price of neodymium oxide to a high of $60 a kilo in 2007. This worries analysts like Irving Mintzer, a senior adviser to the Potomac Energy Fund who sees shortages stifling clean-tech industry, and worse. “If we don’t think this through, we could be trading a troubling dependence on Middle Eastern oil for a troubling dependence on Chinese neodymium.”
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