In 450 million-year-old volcanic rock located on a remote mountainside in northern Maine, scientists have found a significant concentration of rare earth elements and trace metals, worth billions of dollars, that are highly prized by the US defense, technology, and alternative energy industries.
It is still too early to determine whether the deposit should or could be mined despite stringent state regulations or its exact size and composition.
However, according to geologists, it may be comparable to deposits found in China and Australia, and one put the Pennington Mountain deposit’s potential value in the billions of dollars.
Rare Earth Elements
Numerous products, ranging from simple night vision goggles to complex stealth technology, cellphones to flatscreen TVs, solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, and wind turbine generators, can be made using these rare earth elements along with trace metals of niobium and zirconium.
Conflicts between the local environmental effects of mining and the benefits to the world’s climate achieved through the use of those mined materials have grown in Maine and across the country as a result of the use of trace metals and rare earth elements in renewable energy technologies.
Wang argued that the term “rare” is inaccurate because they are not rare; they are everywhere, but only in incredibly small amounts.
But finding a large concentration of rare earth elements in one location is rare.
Due to water quality regulations as well as the high costs of compliance, rare earth discoveries in the US have gone unexploited.
The only active rare earth mine in the US is Mountain Pass, located in the Mojave Desert of California.
The landowner, Aroostook Timberlands LLC, is owned by J.D. Irving, a wealthy Canadian corporation with ties to the forestry, shipbuilding, and oil industries.
The company has previously shown that it is willing to engage in mining by attempting to access a zinc, copper, gold, and silver deposit located beneath nearby Bald Mountain.
That effort fell short of the state’s strict mining and water quality laws.
Pit mines, like the one planned for Bald Mountain, as well as a silver mine being considered by Wolfden Resources Corp. east of Baxter State Park, could expose sulfide-rich rocks that could contaminate groundwater.
The Ontario-based company’s Wolfden project has been suspended after running into rezoning issues and some local opposition.
The state has thus far rejected a Newry couple’s attempts to classify the extraction as something other than metal mining to obtain the permits required to mine lithium from a sizable $1.5 billion deposit in western Maine.
The production of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for use in electric vehicles requires a lot of lithium.
In a 2021 image taken during a radiometric and magnetic survey of a 3,800 square mile swath of northern Maine, the Pennington Mountain discovery appeared as a 100-acre radioactive hot spot glowing in bright red.
The Oxford lithium project in 2020, Pennington in 2021, and Aroostook district geologic mapping, which is in the second year of a three-year search for manganese, are the three focus areas in Maine that the USGS has so far funded.
To date, Maine is the only state in New England to receive funding for the $450,000 Earth MRI.
In October, geologist Chunzeng Wang traveled to Pennington Mountain armed with a hammer and a portable radiometric sensor to investigate the anomaly and gather samples.
After chemical analysis, samples sent to a lab in Nevada showed very high concentrations of trace metals like niobium, which is used to make gas turbines, jet engines, and MRI scanners.
It also contained zirconium, which is a heat-resistant metal used for superconducting magnets.
The samples also contained significant amounts of even more valuable rare earth elements and trace metals, such as dysprosium, gallium, and lanthanum, which are used in hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicle batteries, respectively.
Dysprosium is used to make magnets essential in electric vehicles and wind turbine motors.
The Red Hot Spot
Wang thinks that Pennington’s entire ridge is mineral-rich, but geophysicist Anji Shah, who was in charge of analyzing the survey images, is more cautious.
Only a few feet of the surface area was reached by handheld scanners.
Wang could only sample the rock outcroppings at the surface without digging.
According to Shah from the USGS, to ascertain the extent of the mineral deposits and the concentration of rare earth elements and metals within the mineral flakes woven throughout the rocks, more research is required at the site.
Such tests would be carried out by either the mineral exploration business or the landowner, Maine Public reported.
For the time being, the geologists are content to rejoice in their discovery, which started with an odd red hot spot on a radiometric image taken by a low-flying surveillance plane.
Shah pointed out that this finding demonstrates how much remains to be learned about the earth, the Press Herald noted.