Driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, there is little to see across the flat expanse in the desert east of Barstow, California. Head to the state line and there are few gas stations and fewer towns. Most of the action happens underground: alongside I-15, near the Nevada border, in a tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-it town called Mountain Pass, more than 350 people work around the clock to mine and process the rare earth elements essential to the smartphones and computers which run our world.
Mountain Pass is operated by a company called Molycorp. It's part of an exclusive club - one that holds the key to a problem that vexes the tech industry, the military, and governments the world over: How to keep rare earth metals affordable.