September 19, 2016

The Honorable Lisa Murkowski

Chairman

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

709 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

 

The Honorable Maria Cantwell

Ranking Member

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

511 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

 

The Greater Ketchkan Chamber of Commerce supports Senator Murkowski’s recently introduced bill, the Alaska Economic Development and Access to Resources Act. S. 3203 contains a host of provisions that will benefit the Alaskan economy and support Alaskan industry. Additionally, provisions within the bill promote the creation of green technology and strengthen U.S. national security by encouraging the development of new technologies to meet the nation’s demand for critical and strategic materials.

Advancements in technology over the past half-century have driven the demand for rare earth elements. Everything from smartphones to electric vehicles to advanced defense applications such as the Joint Strike Fighter rely in some capacity on the unique properties of rare earths and would be rendered useless without them. Currently, the production of these elements is dominated by China which controls the majority of the world’s mining of rare earth containing ore and each subsequent stage in the separation supply chain. Chinese production of rare earths relies upon two separation techniques, ion exchange and solvent extraction. While the ion exchange process can produce small amounts of high purity rare earths, solvent extraction enables large scale separation. However, solvent extraction techniques have a very low-selectivity for individual rare earths and necessitate the use of many separation stages using corrosive chemicals leading to the generation of vast amounts of highly toxic, organic waste. One need not look further than the artificial lake created in China’s rare earth-producing Inner Mongolia region to witness the environmental degradation being caused as a result solvent extraction separation.[1]

Section 401 of S.3203 provides for the creation of a grants program to develop “more environmentally acceptable and less expensive ways to separate and process rare earth elements, which would increase the likelihood of economic production of rare earth elements in North America.” Not only would this language promote the development of an alternative to foreign sources of rare earths, improving U.S. national security, but section 401 would foster American development of clean technology. “Environmentally benign technologies,” as referred to by the bill, offer the ability to meet 21st century demand for rare earths while simultaneously promoting metal sustainability and the elimination of pollutants from the rare earth separation supply chain.

Despite increased demand for rare earths over the past half-century, low-cost, environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional separation processes have yet to be proven. Instead, companies have relied primarily on the expensive and polluting solvent extraction method of separation. The pilot plant to be constructed under Section 401 would not only help alleviate U.S. dependence on foreign sources of rare earths, but also drive innovation toward the next generation of separation technologies such as Molecular Recognition Technology.

With no domestic rare earth mine or separation facility currently in operation, the U.S. exposes itself to dangerous supply interruptions. Thus far, the sole mitigation strategy employed by the Department of Defense consists of stockpiling small reserves of certain rare earths, a rather sanguine approach considering the host of defense-related applications that would be rendered ineffective if U.S. access to rare earths was restricted. Section 401, in placing an emphasis on closed loop systems with the capability to recover heavy rare earths such as dysprosium, terbium, and europium, enables to U.S. to obviate its dependence on foreign sources of critical materials.

Ucore supports the language included in Section 401 of S.3203 and believes the bill effectively promotes the development of domestic alternatives to foreign sources of critical materials.

Regards

Bill Swift, Executive Director Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce

Jason Custer, Board President Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce

 

 

 

[1] Tim Maughan, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust.” BBC, 2 April 2015. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth.

Posted in: Letters of Support

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