Afghanistan’s Embattled Helmand Region Holds Rare-Earth Elements

Afghanistan’s Helmand province, scene of some of the heaviest fighting between U.S. forces and the Taliban, holds at least 1 million metric tons of rare-earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The deposits in the geological formation known as the Khanneshin carbonatite are comparable in quality to commercially exploited deposits in Bayan Obo, China, and Mountain Pass, California, the USGS said today in a statement.

“This is just one more piece of evidence that Afghanistan’s mineral sector has a bright future,” said Regina Dubey, acting director of Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which funded the study.

“The international mining community is beginning to realize Afghanistan’s extraordinary mineral potential,” she said in a statement.

Rare-earth-based magnets and materials are used in Research In Motion Ltd. (RIMM)’s BlackBerrys, Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)’s Prius cars, and military radar. Lanthanum is used in hybrid engines and metal alloys, and cerium is used in petroleum refining.

A preliminary USGS resource assessment, published in 2007, estimated about 1.5 million metric tons of potential rare-earth element resources in all of southern Afghanistan. The estimate of about 1 million metric tons in just the Khanneshin carbonatite verifies the 2007 USGS prediction and confirms the unpublished work of Soviet scientists, the USGS said.

Barium and Uranium

In addition to high concentrations of rare-earth elements, the deposit has significant concentrations of barium, strontium, phosphorus, and uranium, the USGS said. The primary area of mineralization covers approximately 0.74 square kilometers (0.29 square miles), according to the USGS report.

“The potential that these findings have for the future well-being of the Afghan people is significant,” Ambassador Marc Grossman, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in the statement. “The United States will continue to support the Government of Afghanistan’s efforts to develop these resources through private-sector investment in a responsible, transparent, and sustainable manner that benefits the Afghan people, expands markets, and promotes regional prosperity.”

China holds a total of 36 million metric tons of rare- earths reserves, or 36 percent of world resources, followed by Russia with 19 million metric tons and the U.S. with 13 million metric tons, according to a Sept. 30, 2010, Congressional Research Service report.

More than 95 percent of global production of rare-earth elements now comes from China, which in 2010 exported approximately 30,000 metric tons of such products, according to the USGS. New mines are being developed in Australia, and projects exploring the feasibility of economic production of other deposits are under way in the United States, Australia, and Canada, the agency said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Terry Atlas in Washington at tatlas@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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