The deposit of a valuable and rare heat-resistant element hidden beneath southeast Nebraska may be even more promising than previously thought, according to new findings released Monday by a Canadian mining firm.
Quantum Rare Earth Developments announced the highlights of a new mineral resource estimate done by outside experts on the site near Elk Creek, Neb. Quantum is trying to determine whether to build a mine to harvest niobium and possibly other rare elements from more than 500 feet underground.
"We are continually being positively surprised with this deposit and encouraged," Dickie said.
But even with another encouraging report, Dickie said the company still is a year or two away from deciding to move forward with a mine that could employ 400 to 500 people.
Quantum officials believe more than 100 million tons of niobium are buried beneath an area about 70 miles southwest of Lincoln.
Niobium is used to harden steel and make it more heat-resistant for industrial uses, but there are few places in the world where it is being mined, so supplies are tight. U.S. companies must import all the niobium they use.
The U.S. Geologic Survey estimates roughly $330 million worth of niobium was imported into the U.S. in 2010 and about $400 million of the element were imported in 2011. Niobium hasn't been produced in America in significant amounts since the 1950s.
The agency has said the area Quantum is exploring near Elk Creek could become one of the world's largest sources of niobium and other rare earth elements used in cellphones, wind turbines, hybrid car batteries and other applications.
Dickie has said it would cost between $300 million and $400 million to establish a Nebraska niobium mine.
Quantum plans to conduct more exploratory drilling at the site later this year to gather more information about the niobium and other minerals that may be buried below.
The Nebraska site has been explored before by another mining company. Colorado-based Molycorp abandoned the project in the 1990s because it didn't appear that a mine could be profitable, but niobium prices have increased since then.
Quantum Rare Earth Developments: www.quantumrareearth.com