The Department of Energy is funding coal research that could help yield metals of critical military and strategic importance by 2020, but to do so must meet strict regulations and face entrenched Chinese competition

The day may come when a coal miner processes waste and overburden to commercially produce rare earth elements (REEs) for domestic and foreign markets. If the government, a handful of academics, and some dedicated companies have anything to do with it, that day may arrive within a half-decade. Meanwhile, high in the Mohave desert, an idled open-pit mine stands testament to a different future. A researcher of the Molycorp Mountain Pass REEs mine bankruptcy says that government involvement in REEs extraction from coal amounts to little more than a political stunt, some well-meaning theater to benefit beleaguered energy sector players that once contributed to political campaigns. Both camps, however, acknowledge that if REEs can be economically produced from coal, then the black rock will suddenly be doing more than lighting the night. It might save America from a massive power grab by the totalitarian Chinese.

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