MP Materials, the owner of the Mountain Pass rare earths mine in California has announced plans to add to its workforce and up its production as part of a strategy to build American refining capability in the rare earth market.
No company has refined rare earth materials in the United States since Molycorp, the previous owner of the Mountain Pass Mine, went bankrupt in 2005. Since then, the materials produced at the mine, more than 50 kt/a (55,000 stpy), have been sent to China for processing.
In 2019, a trade dispute between the United States and China has led to escalating tariffs being placed on rare earths by China. Reuters reported that in June, China more than doubled tariffs on U.S. rare earths imports for refining to 25 percent. And in August, Beijing said it would add an additional 10 percent on top of that tariff rate starting in October.
The Trump administration has labeled rare earths critical for national defense and ordered the Pentagon to support domestic production.
"What China has recognized is that this is a strategic industry," said James Litinsky, co-chairman of MP Materials.
MP Materials plans to boost its headcount by next year to about 400, up from about 200, and is already producing 68 percent more rare earth concentrate than under Molycorp.
To resume refining in California, privately-held MP Materials is spending $200 million to restart mothballed equipment at the mine and build a large roasting oven.
After processing, rare earths need to be turned into rare earth magnets, found in precision-guided missiles, smart bombs and military jets. But China controls the rare earths magnet industry, too.
Litinsky and peers are betting that by bringing rare earths refining back to the United States, it will encourage other investors to build magnets and other related parts in the country as well.
The mine originally opened in 1948 and has gone through a series of owners, including Chevron Corp, before Molycorp went bankrupt.
MP Materials also plans to re-open the Mountain Pass chlor-alkali facility, which was built by Molycorp, Litinsky said.
The facility will recycle wastewater and produce hydrochloric acid and caustic soda to use in the rare earths separation process, saving the facility the added cost of buying the chemicals on the open market.
The company's new roaster will bake rare earth ore at high temperatures to effectively leach out the high-value minerals.
It's not clear if the group will be able to re-start the processing equipment by next year or instead will face delays common in construction projects.
Once the refining equipment does switch online, the goal is to use that material on site to make more than 5 k/a (5,500 stpy) of neodymium and praseodymium (NdPr), two of the 17 types of rare earths that are used to make magnets.
August’s tariff news means that MP Materials will need to find more customers outside of China once it restarts its California processor, pitting it against Australia's Lynas Corp, the largest rare earths miner and processor outside of China.