Southeast eyed as Silicon Valley of rare-earth metals mining

October 3, 2011 

Bokan Mountain near Ketchikan

U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

Developing a rare-earth mine and processing facility in Southeast Alaska would be a massively expensive and potentially time-consuming undertaking, but the Canadian company Ucore Rare Metals -- and some financial speculators -- remain optimistic. The Bokan Mountain prospect, an abandoned uranium mine near Ketchikan, is one of dozens of promising rare-earth sites in Alaska, reports Reuters Canada.

"They have this view that, potentially, they can make Alaska the Silicon Valley of rare earths," said Luisa Moreno, an analyst at Jacob Securities in Toronto.

Moreno, who has a "speculative buy" rating on Ucore's stock, is optimistic about the company's prospects and sees it as one of the front runners among the dozens of exploration companies in the industry. ...

Rare earths are a group of 17 metals used in technology items from Apple's iPhone to Ford's Focus hybrid, as well as in defense applications and oil refining.

Nearly all of the world's supply is currently produced in China, where an export clampdown sent prices for the individual oxides and metals skyrocketing. That's seen as an opportunity for Alaska and for Canadian exploration companies like Ucore.

Bokan Mountain would get a boost from being close to Ketchikan, which "has the basic infrastructure and skilled labor to fuel a major mineral separation and refining facility," says Reuters.

The Parnell administration hosted a summit last week in Fairbanks aimed at discussing ways to move rare-earth projects forward quickly. From The Associated Press:

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. ...

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 [Gov. Sean] 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.

Read more from Reuters Canada and the AP, and hear an audio report from the Fairbanks summit by KUAC via the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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