"We have just been throwing [the minerals] away, but we just decided that long term it was in our interest. The prices have gone up. It is a nice little revenue stream for us." —Milton Sundbeck, mining operation owner
China dominates rare-earth elements. It has lucrative concentrations in the ground and controls most of the world’s complex processing capabilities for the materials. That kind of leverage worries U.S. officials who fear it could become a pressure point in trade wars with China.
The 17 rare-earth metals have helped feed a stunning array of crucial sectors. They’ve been used in night-vision gear, precision-guided missiles, anti-lock brakes, batteries, electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, oil refining processes, smartphones, TVs, catalytic converters and more. They can be used to polish glass, serve as powerful, heat-resistant magnets and provide phosphorescence.
Not a gold rush
The market for the material is volatile, the elements aren’t in rich concentrations locally and unlocking them from minerals is often difficult. The only other known U.S. commercial operation for rare-earth elements is Mountain Pass in California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The site was shuttered for years, then re-opened, then filed for bankruptcy protection and recently launched anew.
Which helps explain why rare-earth elements have yet to spark serious expectations for a new version of a Georgia gold rush.
Recent Georgia State University research into rare-earth concentrations in leftovers at kaolin mines in Middle Georgia has been greeted with little more than shrugs from mine executives.
Minerals containing rare-earth elements are just one of the products being mined by Southern Ionics as it digs up ancient beach sand in South Georgia. Most of the attention is on darker-colored minerals found in the deposits. Photo courtesy of Southern Ionics.
It’s interesting, but “not financially or economically feasible to explore at this moment,” said Prakash Malla, who directs research and development for Thiele Kaolin Co. in Sandersville. Thiele participated in the GSU study.
And in Charlton County, every batch of the slightly radioactive minerals that Sundbeck’s Southern Ionics pulls out of its open pit mine near Folkston and partially processes up the road in Pierce County is another example of the nation’s challenges in establishing a meaningful supply of rare-earth elements.
“That is not our target mineral,” said Sundbeck, who is based in Mississippi and has mining and chemical manufacturing operations in several states.
At his small Charlton operation, dozens of miles from the Georgia seashore, the focus is on titanium used in paint making and other processes, and zircon, which goes into material such as glazes for toilets and dinnerware.
A tiny amount of the local sand also includes minerals that encase various rare-earth elements with unusual names. Among them: yttrium, neodymium, cerium, lanthanum, praseodymium and gadolinium.
“We have just been throwing them away, but we just decided that long term it was in our interest,” Sundbeck said. “The prices have gone up. It is a nice little revenue stream for us.”
Their fourth 240-ton shipment of minerals containing rare-earth elements is about to be sent by train to the West Coast, then shipped to China for chemical processing that will unlock and separate the rare-earth elements.
It’s a modest start.
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“The amount we produce is insignificant in the world supply,” said Jim Renner, who directs environmental stewardship for the company’s Georgia operations.
The rare-earth connection has escaped attention from many of Charlton’s 12,500 residents, who rely on a rural economy tied mostly to timbering and the vast Okefenokee Swamp.
“We haven’t heard anybody talking about it,” said Matthew Cook, who with his wife owns the popular Okefenokee Restaurant.
James Everett, who chairs Charlton’s board of commissioners, voiced surprise when contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I have to check into that,” he said.
Southern Ionics only digs down about 25 feet. Tiny amounts of radioactive elements, such as uranium, are naturally present in the sand.
"I think there is reason for cautious optimism in terms of rare-earth production from Georgia." —Rod Eggert, a Colorado School of Mines economics professor
Workers don’t have to wear protective suits when double bagging rare-earth-containing materials that look like greenish-brown sand, Renner said.
But the company has a radiation export license that had to be approved by the U.S. State Department. And if the materials were ever fully processed in the United States, the company would have to deal with radioactive material that would be left over.
For now, Southern Ionics plans include mining in Charlton a few more years and eventually operating at another South Georgia site in Wayne County.
A misleading name and a volatile history
Rare-earth elements, it turns out, are not rare.
Thin concentrations are fairly common around the world. The challenge is finding significant accumulations that are economically viable to mine, something clays in parts of south China offer.
Middle Georgia’s kaolin clays have only modest similarities.
Georgia State geosciences professor W. Crawford Elliott, who recently studied the rare-earth material around kaolin, still sounds hopeful that the elements will eventually become a financial addition to kaolin operations.
“Maybe five years or 10 years from now somebody figures this out,” he said.
Operators have another challenge with rare-earth elements.
Prices at the mining level tend to be much lower than what the fully processed elements go for.
The processed material varies based on the type of element, with recent per-kilogram prices ranging from about $1 to $300, according to Rod Eggert, a Colorado School of Mines economics professor.
In the last decade, prices soared amid concerns about China tightening supplies. Then prices plummeted as demand slowed and companies conserved supplies, recycled materials and sought alternatives to rare-earth elements.
Demand for some rare-earth elements could zoom again if the market for electric vehicles booms. And that might help the chances for Georgia operations, Eggert said.
“I think there is reason for cautious optimism in terms of rare-earth production from Georgia” and regional clay deposits, he said. “There is the potential over the longer term for that to have an impact on the rare-earth markets.”
Still, he pointed out that Georgia will be competing against new sources of the elements being sought around the world.
That includes U.S. Department of Energy interest in turning another kind of trash into treasure: scouring rare-earth elements from the coal-ash leftover of power plants. Georgia Tech is among the universities researching the possibilities.