“In some sense, the first steps are relatively easy and well-understood, but the real challenge to make money is to do the separation,” said Eric J. Schelter, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Pini Althaus, the chief executive of USA Rare Earths, said that the company had had promising results processing ores in small amounts through a pilot program, and that he hoped to have its Round Top mine, near El Paso, running by 2023.
The Round Top mine must still prove it is economically viable. In part because of the relatively low concentrations of rare earth minerals at the site, the company plans to process and market around a dozen other substances present there, such as lithium, which together would account for more than two-thirds of its revenue.
Other substances the company has said it could produce, such as “yellowcake” uranium and beryllium, are known carcinogens and require expensive and complex procedures to process safely.
“Nobody has ever seen a project like it anywhere in the world,” said David R. Henderson, the president of Rittenhouse International Resources, a specialty materials trading firm.
Experts say that if the current political momentum lasts, one or more new sites in the United States could nonetheless start production, given enough time, money and tolerance for pollution.
“If you put enough money in it, something will come out the other end, that just doesn’t make it a good investment,” said Eugene Gholz, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “You could go get investors and risk investors’ money, but it’s even better if you can go get government money, in terms of stacking the deck in favor of your own profitability.”