TradeTexas Could Play Central Role in Shift Away from China’s Rare Earth Dominance

Located in West Texas, Round Top Mountain is one of the largest deposits of rare earth minerals in the country.
December 27, 2021
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It’s no secret that Texas is the nation’s largest producer of oil, pumping out hundreds of millions of barrels every year.

But the Lone Star State could have another hidden gem that will make it the dominant producer of another natural resource: rare earth minerals.

USA Rare Earth, with its joint venture partner Texas Mineral Resources Corporation, says that its West Texas mining project contains nearly half of the minerals listed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on the agency’s latest draft list of critical minerals.

The USGS identified 50 mineral commodities that it deems “vital to the Nation’s economic and national security interests,” including 16 of the 17 rare earths.

To date, the vast majority of rare earth minerals are mined and processed in China. Many lawmakers and officials fear that America’s reliance on the communist nation for resources that are vital to modern defense technologies poses a national security threat.

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But there is only one U.S.-based mine and processing center for rare earth minerals, the Mountain Pass mine in California. That is expected to change soon, though.

Located in Hudspeth County, USA Rare Earth says that Round Top Mountain can be mined for 22 of the critical resources, including all of the rare earth minerals on the USGS’s list.

The company projects the project — which, in addition to the mine itself, will make use of a recommissioned permanent magnet manufacturing system to process the materials — will become operational in 2023.

Earlier this year, the USGS also identified Round Top as the nation’s largest deposit of gallium — what it deems the highest priority of the 50 critical minerals.

The agency estimates that the site contains 36,500 metric tons of the resource.

One of the primary uses of gallium is in semiconductor manufacturing, a growing industry in the Lone Star State. In October, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the formation of the “National Semiconductor Centers Task Force” with the aim of snagging the location of a future federal center and program in the field.

“In 2021, Texas was ranked number 1 in the country for its leadership in semiconductors, and we continue to see significant capital investment in areas across the state,” said Abbott. “In addition, the Lone Star State has prioritized developing our large and highly skilled workforce in this sector, ranking number 2 nationally for employment in semiconductor and machinery manufacturing, employing over 29,000 Texans.”

But semiconductor manufacturing is hardly the only modern-tech industry in Texas that is seeing a boom in growth.

More and more electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers, such as Tesla and Rivian, are lining up to build their products in the Lone Star State.

That particular growth has come with the push of incentives from the government, whether it be local tax breaks, grants from the Texas Enterprise Fund, or funding in the recent federal infrastructure bill to create a broader network of EV charging stations.

But in order to build the new types of electric vehicles, producers have to rely on processed rare earths and other critical minerals — a need that the project in West Texas hopes to supply.

“USA Rare Earth is developing a fully domestic mine-to-magnet supply chain, while the lithium at Round Top will also support the manufacture of battery electric vehicles,” said Thayer Smith, the president of USA Rare Earth. “These are two essential components to the future of electric transportation.”

The company says that based on an economic assessment conducted in 2019 for a 20-year mine plan, the operation is projected to generate “an internal rate of return of 70% and average annual net revenues of $395 million a year after average royalties of $26 million a year payable to the State of Texas.”

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.