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Alaska to mine geological past for mineral markets

Posted: September 29, 2011 - 11:05pm

JUNEAU — Alaska is known for its oil and gas wealth, but officials believe it also holds promise for providing many of the little-known minerals and elements that play major roles in day-to-day life.

The state has billed itself as an excellent place to explore, with geology conducive to deposits of critical minerals and rare-earth elements. Critical minerals, which include rare-earth elements, are those needed for use but subject to possible restrictions in supply.

Alaska houses 70 known sites of rare-earth elements, which are the types of elements used in technology such as radar systems, satellites, renewable energy systems and consumer products like cell phones and TVs. One example of rare-earth elements is europium, which the U.S. Geological Survey says is used for color cathode-ray tubes and liquid-crystal displays in computer monitors and TVs.

The state boasts what is believed to be one of the most significant rare-earth prospects in North America — Bokan Mountain, which is under exploration by a Canadian company on Prince of Wales Island.

But this young state remains about a “half-century behind” in terms of a basic geographic understanding of itself, said Dwight Bradley, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He is beginning a five-year project aimed at assessing the cache of critical minerals and rare-earth elements and where more can be found.

Alaska is “such a huge place, and so few geologists going over the rocks, not that much is known,” he said, adding that many studies that have been done haven’t analyzed for rare-earth and critical elements.

The state is convening a summit Friday on “critical and strategic” minerals, a gathering intended to bring together political leaders, geologists, mining officials, national security experts, investors and others to discuss the potential for developing those resources and how best to move forward.

Alaska is in the midst of assessing its rare-earth resources, an effort pushed by Gov. Sean Parnell, who sees them as another example of where the U.S. is reliant on foreign sources to meet its needs. China holds a virtual monopoly as a global supplier of rare-earth elements, with an estimated 48 percent of the world’s proven reserves.

Countries, like the U.S. and Japan, have noted the importance of these elements and minerals to the high-tech, green, auto and defense sectors, realizing “we’re being squeezed big time,” said Parnell’s natural resources commissioner, Dan Sullivan.

“The theme is: ‘We’re in a lot of trouble; other countries are cornering the market on these things, and what do we do?’” he said.

A paper released by the state Department of Natural Resources noted a surge in exploration activity last year amid word that China planned to reduce rare-earth exports to ensure a supply for domestic manufacturing. Economic assessments continued in several states, including Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska and Wyoming, as well as in Canada and Australia, the report said, citing the Geological Survey.

Ucore Uranium changed its name to Ucore Rare Metals Inc. last year, as it turned its attention the rare-earth sector, company spokesman Byron Fillmore said. The company retained control of the Bokan Mountain site in southeast Alaska in 2006, initially because of its interest in uranium, though it also was aware of a rare-earth deposit on the property.

That rare-earth project is now Ucore’s primary focus, he said. The company hopes to complete a preliminary economic assessment by year’s end and a feasibility study by the end of 2012.

The goal was to be in production within four years, Fillmore said, with the main focus on heavy rare earth elements and an emphasis on dysprosium and terbium. Dysprosium can be used in nuclear plants; terbium in such things as electronic devices and lasers.

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