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My Turn: Realizing the benefits of REEs

Posted: February 21, 2012 - 1:01am

Rare Earth Elements (REE’s), while receiving more worldwide attention in recent years, still remain a mystery to much of the public. REE’s are a group of 17 chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table of elements. What makes them valuable are their unique characteristics, such as chemical, catalytic, magnetic, optical, electrical, and metallurgical properties. These properties make them valuable in products such as smart phones, hybrid cars, windmills, military hardware, fiber optics, and other emerging technologies—however, the term “Rare Earth Elements” is somewhat misleading.

REE’s are 200 times more common than gold in the earth’s crust. What makes them “rare” is that they are seldom found in concentrations large enough for economic extraction. That is why globally there are just a handful of countries that are producing rare earth elements; such as China, India, Brazil, Malaysia, and the United States. Of those producers, China currently controls 95 percent of the REE world supply. No one country should be in control of these vital elements. Thus, it is important for the U.S. to capitalize on its REE deposits, especially in Alaska, and particularly here in Southeast.

Alaska’s most advanced project is Bokan Mountain (37 miles south of Ketchikan) on Prince of Wales Island. The flagship of Ucore Rare Metals Inc., Bokan is the site of the former Ross-Adams uranium mine that was in operation between 1957 and 1972. It is estimated that there are between 1 and 6.7 million tons of Total Rare Earth Oxide (TREO) and the estimated value of the deposit is between $1 and $6.5 billion. An intact infrastructure, an access road system, and deep water Kendrick Bay allows for easier production for not only Bokan, but also potential investment in other deposits of REE’s in Salmon Bay, Stone Rock Bay, and Dora Lake.

What makes REE mining exciting is that Alaska has the potential to become the center of U.S. rare earth production by building an REE processing and refinement plant—perhaps here in Southeast. Even more ambitious, Alaska could also specialize in manufacturing magnets which are used in products made from the refined elements.

Having an REE mine in Alaska could provide immense benefits to the state’s economy and residents.

Not only would we have the largest REE mine in the country, but we could also create a brand new industry if we processed, refined, and manufactured products made from these elements. Alaska has always had a bright future because we have never been afraid to explore new ideas.

Let’s give the next generation something to be proud of by encouraging the development of REEs.

For more information visit bit.ly/AuoehR or buswk.co/tu6ldB.

• Wilson (R-Wrangell) serves District 2 in the Alaska House of Representatives.

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