Geologic investigation of the Baiyunebo Rare Earth Element District, Inner Mongolia, China – Integrating undergraduate student learning experiences with faculty research

Kurt Friehauf - 2004

china location map


Three Kutztown University undergraduate students went with me to Beijing and to Inner Mongolia (northern China) to study the giant Baiyunebo rare earth element deposit in the summer 2004.  The Chinese people were spectacularly welcoming and friendly, although bureaucracy sometimes impeded progress, like it does everywhere else in the world.

The Baiyunebo (Bayan Obo) area is the world’s largest concentration of Rare Earth Elements (REE) – essential ingredients in products ranging from automobile catalytic converters to computer screens and electric motors.  Because Rare Earth Elements are of such strategic importance, understanding the earth processes that concentrate REE is of great interest to both the scientific community and to industry. 

map by USGSThe goal of this study is to help constrain models that explain the formation of the mineral depsoits by geologic mapping in the field and chemical analysis in the lab.  Understanding the factors that led to the formation of the Baiyunebo deposit will allow for a comparison with the geological characteristics of other giant REE deposits such as Mountain Pass (California) and Olympic Dam (Australia), which will ultimately reveal fundamental, underlying processes of REE migration in the upper crust. 
Click here for a description of the research with maps, photos, etc.

Throughout the spring semester, we prepared for our trip by reading articles published in the scientific literature by geologists who'd studied Baiyunebo before us (for example, the United States Geological Survey paper and Martin Smith's, work with Paul Henderson).  Finding all the literature can be tricky since there are many different translations of the name from Chinese characters to Latin spellings (Bayan Obo, Baiyunebo, Baiyun'ebo).

exercisersThe first three weeks of our trip were spent in Beijing where I teach a short course about mineral deposits for graduate students at the China University of Geosciences - Beijing (a very highly respected university for geological studies).  It's a great school and the students get amazing hands-on experience.  They even have a well drilling rig for students to practice on.  Click here to see photos of the campus and life in Beijing.

group on Great Wall

Tibetans in Tiananmen squareWhile in Beijing, we took the opportunity to do a little tourism.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, you know!  Click here to see photos of some of our tourist excursions in/around Beijing.

sleeper carThen we traveled by night train to the city of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia.  We visited the Inner Mongolian Geological Survey before traveling on to Baiyunebo by SUV.  Click here for photos of Hohhot and the surrounding area.

photo by Zach ArtzWe stayed in the very excellent town of Baiyunebo while we were doing our fieldwork.  Visiting the town of Baiyunebo is strictly by permission only and visitors without permission will immediately be turned away upon arrival.  I'm very grateful that we were granted permission to visit the town and region around the mine (as well as get a mine tour one day!)
Click here for photos of Baiyunebo and the surrounding Mongolian steppes.

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