Nebraska is one of those places the coastees like to dis as nowhere. Nebraska is a big mostly flat state that if driving across is best done at night. It’s as dull a drive as can be imagined on I-80. Not many folks there, for all the noise over the Cornhusker Kickback, it wouldn’t have involved many people.
May 5th 2010 saw a not well-noticed announcement that Quantum Rare Earth Developments of Vancouver, BC, Canada was drawn to a 14-square-mile deposit on the Nebraska Johnson-Pawnee County line because of increasing demand for rare earth elements and the political uncertainty of current supplies from places such as China and Brazil.
Axcess News headlines the prospect: Largest Rare Earth Mine in the World Discovered in Nebraska. A bit comical to the locals, the so-called “Elk Creek carbonatite” formation has been known locally and among state geologists for more than 40 years. More than 100 test drillings were done in the 1970s and 1980s. But with the minerals 500 feet or deeper, it was too expensive to commercially mine. Cheaper and more easily accessible supplies were available overseas.
But last summer, China, which supplies more than 90 percent of the rare earth elements imported to the United States, indicated that it might withhold its supplies for use by only Chinese high-tech industries. That triggered concern about the security of the flow of such minerals and renewed interest in the carbonatite formations in North America that hold rare earth minerals and niobium.
The prospect is known to have neodymium, which is used in the powerful magnets, needed for wind turbine generators and electric cars, lanthanum, used in batteries in laptop computers and hybrid cars and niobium used in steel alloys that go into jet engines, pacemakers, gas pipelines and superconducting wire.
The news has to send a gush of relief across the whole alternative energy industry.
About 15 landowners near Elk Creek and Steinauer Nebraska have signed five-year leases to allow test drilling on their farmland.
Erin Chutter, a director of Quantum said, “This ranks up there as one of the most important niobium resources known. That’s obviously very exciting for miners and very exciting for Nebraska if it comes together.”
Nebraska State Senator Lavon Heidemann of Elk Creek, who had worked on the exploratory drilling crews back in the 1970s and 1980s and later helped mine gold in Alaska and helped officials sign up landowners for the exploratory project believes, “If they decide to put a mine down, it won’t be tens of millions of dollars in investment, it would be hundreds of millions. If it happens, it could be huge for the state of Nebraska.”
Matt Joeckel, an assistant professor of geosciences at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln said the Conservation and Survey Division saves lots of information about underground water and mineral deposits that might have economic potential. Joeckel traveled to California a decade ago to retrieve valuable documents associated with the Elk Creek formation. “It didn’t take a genius to figure out that there might be interest in this deposit again,” he said.
Joeckel also points out an important point – the minerals in the Elk Creek formation are “the star elements of the high-tech age.”
One wishes Nebraska well on this. But Brazil supplies about 75 percent of the niobium needed by the United States. The manufacturing base in the U.S. for using these minerals isn’t on the growth climb that China is experiencing. Yet, demand is sure to increase worldwide. Permanent magnets are key for efficient electric motors.
Ms. Chutter points out the project is in the exploratory stage. It will take four to five months for Quantum to complete a $10 million purchase of Elk Creek Resources Corp., a Canadian-owned, Nebraska-based company that originally leased the southeast Nebraska property.
More exploratory drilling to prove up the underground resources is next. Chutter said the economics of a U.S. mine appear “very, very sound” over the next decade, with niobium the most promising mineral at this time. “We’re pretty early in the process. We just have to get on the ground and start drilling.”
How sure is this reserve? The U.S. Geological Survey identified the Elk Creek formation as one of the biggest resources of niobium globally. It’s certainly the biggest in the U.S.
Some quotes are golden er, niobium, “It’s one of those lost geological secrets that wasn’t well-known,” Chutter said. “People in Elk Creek knew it. The broader world really didn’t know about it.”
We do now and are mighty happy the folks in Nebraska have it!