MOUNTAIN PASS, Calif. (KSNV MyNews3.com) —
The drive to Los Angeles has always included a pretty barren stretch of road from Primm to Baker, Calif. -- until recently, that is.
Over the past couple of years, two massive projects have been under construction just across the California border — the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System and a future agriculture and trucking checkpoint.
A third project, a few miles further, dates back to the 1960s. Molycorp Mining was mostly shut down a decade ago, but it is making a comeback with a bang.
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“That's how we mine,” says Molycorp Mine Engineer Daniella Vinolla. “We have to blast our rock in order to get it to a size that we can pick up, put in a truck and get to our crusher.”
This type of explosion happens about once a week just off Interstate 15. It’s all in a day's work for Vinnola.
“All the blasting you see, I designed all of that,” she said. “The pit ... the way it looks, I designed that. I follow the ore body so we know where the ore is, and where we need to mine to get that ore.”
The ore is "rare earth,” an umbrella term for 17 chemical elements from the Periodic Table — including cerium or gadolinium — which, even if you've never heard of, are probably part of your everyday life according to Molycorp's Jim Sims.
“They're used in hybrid and electric vehicles, which are much more fuel-efficient,” Sims said. “They're also used in high-efficiency appliances. The new refrigerators and air conditioning units you can buy today that use a lot less electricity. Many of those have energy efficiency boosted by rare earths.”
“Computers, phones, anything you're using in a phone has a magnet that has come from us or some sort of other material that uses our ore,” Vinolla said.
The mine, which has been here since 1952, halted production in 2002 when China began flooding the market with cheap, rare elements. But recently, the Chinese have kept more of the product for domestic use.
“We had about 50 people at our low, when we weren't doing very much production at all,” Sims said. “When we ramped up construction, we had more than 2,000 construction workers — mostly contractors. Now we've settled down to pretty much just our full-time employment level. There's about 425 people here now.”
When News 3 featured the revitalized Molycorp in 2011, it was already an impressive facility. Since then it's grown a lot, with a pair of recycling units, power plant to help keep the facility self-contained, and a new building for separation of the rare earths.
“Some of the things that we do here are done by other companies. But others are very unique and proprietary,” Sims said. “Molycorp — when we were largely offline in the 2000s — our scientists came up with some fairly dramatic new ways of doing the chemistry, of separating those elements.”
And specialists like Vinolla choose to live in the Las Vegas valley.
“It's incredibly convenient,” she said. “If you go to any other mine, you're going to be driving on dirt roads. You will very rarely find a mine right off the highway.”
“We're still growing, which is good news, I think, for southern Nevada,” Sims said. “We're looking to hire a number of folks, both on the hourly side and on the supervisor side.”