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SOCORRO, N.M. February 13, 2012 – The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has secured a new grant to evaluate the potential for undiscovered rare earth element deposits in the Caballo Mountains and the Burro Mountains of southern New Mexico.

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Dr. Virginia McLemore
Senior Economic Geologist at the Bureau of Geology at New Mexico Tech
Dr. Virginia McLemore, of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources is the principal scientist on this research and will conduct detailed mapping and geochemical studies. Dr. Nelia Dunbar, associate director at the Bureau, is co-principal investigator.

“We are dependent now on China for rare earth, which is an important part of national defense,” McLemore said. “It behooves us to understand how we can develop our resources. If we don’t put money into understanding these deposits, there’s no way they are going to get mined and developed.”

The term “rare earth” refers to 17 little-known elements that have important industrial uses in cell phones, televisions, computers and LCD screens, satellites, smart weapons and green technologies. Hybrid and electric vehicles, photovoltaic cells, magnets, batteries and wind turbines are some of the emergent technologies that rely heavily on rare earth elements.

McLemore and previous New Mexico Tech geologists have identified dozens of rare earth deposits in New Mexico and characterized some of them.

“We’ve done extensive work in the Lemitar Mountains and near Moriarty,” McLemore said. “But in the Burros and Caballos, we’ve never had the time or the funding to study those deposits. Now, the U.S.G.S. has agreed that it’s time to do it.”

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Global production of rare earth elements since 1950.

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Known deposits containing high concentrations of rare earth elements in New Mexico.

The grant will fund new field data collection and laboratory analyses to fully assess the mineral resource potential of the rocks and associated veins. McLemore will map the deposits, collect samples, analyze the chemistry and establish the age of the minerals.

“Until we do the research, these deposits are just exploration targets and they’re a long way from mining,” she said. “This is the basic, grassroots type of R&D that is needed before a company can come in and look at drilling.”

New Mexico mines were producing rare earth minerals as early as the 1940s. Geologists at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology (a division of New Mexico Tech) have been researching these elements ever since.

McLemore published her first studies on rare earth elements in 1988 and most recently published a survey of New Mexico’s rare earth elements in 2010. The summer 2011 issue of “Earth Matters,” the Bureau’s quarterly pamphlet-style publication about geology, was be devoted to rare earth elements in New Mexico.

The United States was the leading producer of rare earth minerals from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. At that time, China began mining and processing rare earth. China undercut the market, forcing American operations to close and effectively cornering the market. As the price of rare earth soared during the 2000s, North American companies and the U.S. government placed more importance on developing domestic sources of rare earth elements.

The U.S. Geological Survey issued a press release announcing that it is providing $260,000 for new research on mineral resources “important to our economy, national security, and land-use decisions.” The New Mexico Tech grant is for $60,000 over one year.

“Although the United States is currently dependent on foreign imports for our supply of rare earths and other critical elements that are essential for the high tech industry, our nation is actually rich in deposits of these valuable minerals,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “The Mineral Research Grants help provide the basic research foundation to better develop our domestic resources and thus become less dependent on foreign imports.”

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech