Brock O’ Kelley ’74 has seen the good times and weathered the bad ones at Molycorp’s Mountain Pass Mine, located 50 miles south of Las Vegas. He was there 22 years ago, when the mine ranked as the world’s largest single producer of rare earth metals. And he endured the dark period of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a changing market and regulatory challenges slowed production to a trickle.
Today, Mountain Pass is poised to enter a new era of prosperity, and O’Kelley did as much as anyone to bring it about. As director of technology for Molycorp, O’Kelley introduced a suite of innovations that increased efficiencies, lowered costs and cleared away longstanding regulatory obstacles.
The result is a new lease on life for Mountain Pass Mine and a new job title for O’Kelley. Molycorp promoted him to Technology Fellow, marking the creation of a new executive-level position with a formal dinner in his honor. In his new role, O’Kelley will continue perfecting the company’s refining and processing technology.
“He’s one of the top people in the world when it comes to knowing how to process these materials,” says Molycorp CEO Mark Smith. “When you combine all the things Brock and his team have worked on, they allow us to process our materials for about 25 percent of the cost of the rest of the world.”
The renaissance at Mountain Pass comes at a critical time. In the last decade China has come to dominate the world market for rare earth metals, which have critical applications in defense technology, consumer electronics, renewable energy and other key industries. In 2010, China accounted for roughly 95 percent of the world’s rare earth production. When that country slashed its export quota a year ago, the threat of worldwide shortages loomed.
“We sensed there was a great need to make sure we were up and running sooner rather than later,” says O’Kelley. “We accelerated our schedule such that we were able to start up operations in 2007 using stockpiled materials.”
Because they occur in unusually complex ores, rare earth metals are difficult to separate out at high concentrations, so the refining process is long and costly. Mountain Pass’s long period of near-idleness turned out to be a blessing, O’Kelley says, because it gave him and the young mining engineers in his charge time to step back, think about the big picture and reengineer the entire production sequence.
“The old process just didn’t make sense,” O’Kelley says. “We had to have the ability to produce the same high-quality separated rare earths the Chinese offer, and we were able to come up with some innovative processes to do that.”
While the details of those innovations aren’t open for public discussion, O’Kelley characterizes them as an accretion of small changes rather than one large, transformational breakthrough.
“There was no big new discovery,” O’Kelley says. “It was just a matter of figuring out how to piece things together more effectively.”
Mission accomplished, says Molycorp chairman Ross Bhappu PhD ’88. “The work Brock’s group is doing has led to incredible recovery rates and incredible overall efficiency,” he says. “It’s going to make us the lowest-cost operator in the world.”
“It’s not just the ideas Brock has come up with,” adds Smith. “It’s also the leadership he has provided. He’s taken a group of young engineers and turned them into outstanding rare earth scientists who have come up with processing technologies that rank second to nobody in the world. That team, largely because of Brock’s leadership, will enable us to produce the same amount of product as our competitors from less than half the amount of ore.”
“The biggest message to our young people was to be creative,” O’Kelley says. “We gave some guidance to our young engineers and chemists, but mostly we gave them free rein to figure out what was needed.”
Even when Mountain Pass was closed and Molycorp faced bleak prospects, O’Kelley figured it was only a matter of time before things turned around. “We have a world-class deposit,” he says. “I believed at some point in time the markets would turn around, and the materials we could produce would benefit not only our economy, but also our country.”
And turn around they did. The price of neodymium, which is used to make rare earth magnets, has increased 1,400 percent in just the last three years. The market’s response on Molycorp’s share price has been impressive too, going from $14 at its initial public offering on July 29, 2010, to $57 on August 31, 2011. While myriad factors play into this success, O’Kelley’s meticulous overhaul of Mountain Pass Mine has helped secure Molycorp’s position in the industry, while providing the country with a valuable future source of rare earth metals outside China.