The U.S. rare earths industry is hoping other domestic mines will open.
The U.S. Geological Survey has identified several sites, including Music Valley in Southern California, where rare earths could be mined. Congress is considering proposals, some pushing for loan guarantees for rare earths suppliers, to encourage more domestic research and production. Other countries, including Australia, Canada and Brazil, are also on the hunt for more sites.
But developing a new mine from scratch requires prospecting, exploration, permitting and construction.
And even if more mines open in the U.S., the country has few companies that can process rare earths, use them to manufacture batteries and magnets and work them into products. Without a domestic supply chain, most of the material extracted in the U.S. would have to be shipped overseas anyway.
There aren't many researchers or industry workers in the U.S. with experience working with rare earths. Not long ago, Molycorp recruiters were unable to find potential hires or even universities that offered rare earths courses. The company has 22 scientists exploring uses and sources of the elements; China has thousands.
"It takes a lot to go from some dirt in the ground to magnets," said Lifton, the analyst. "Finding a deposit is like saying, 'George Washington slept here.' It doesn't mean much. We've got enough bananas, but now we've got to figure out how to make banana splits."
But some clean-tech executives said that the industry may be relying too much on rare earths. Metallurgy experts point to the cobalt crisis of the late 1970s as an example. The element -- used in alloys, batteries, pigments and more -- was in short supply as political unrest locked down the primary reserves in Africa just as demand was starting to boom.
"Tomorrow, it'll be something else," said Alexander King, director of the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, run by the Energy Department. "The thing we need to learn is how to control the economics, to develop alternative materials on a very short turnaround."
Some suggest recycling existing rare earths materials -- known as "urban mining." Others are considering using substitute materials such as aluminum, copper and iron in place of rare earths.
Toyota Motor Corp., which uses rare earths for hybrids like the Toyota Prius, said it plans to switch to a special induction motor that doesn't require the elements. Battery-powered vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt use rare earth magnets that are more compact than other options.
But managing fluctuating supply is a "normal risk of doing business," said Pete Savagian, chief engineer for electric motors for General Motors Co. If rare earths run low or are priced out of the market, the automaker will adapt, he said.
"Rare earth magnets are great to have, but they're also not the only way," he said. "We'll go forward using the best methods we have."