By JOSH FUNKOMAHA, Neb. (AP) â¿¿ A Canadian mining firm says it's close to securing the funding needed to move forward with a plan to extract a valuable and rare heat-resistant element from beneath southeast Nebraska. NioCorp Developments CEO Peter Dickie said he expects to secure financing for the Elk Creek, Neb., project within the next few weeks. Once the company gets funding, it will resume drilling samples to determine how much niobium and other rare earth elements are present, and NioCorp will finish analyzing the samples it has already collected. Those elements are used in making steel and high-tech devices. "We are moving as quickly as we can, but financing has been difficult," said Dickie, whose company used to be known as Quantum Rare Earth Developments. Niobium is used to harden steel and make it more heat-resistant for industrial uses, and NioCorp officials believe more than 100 tons of the element are lying more than 500 feet below agricultural land about 70 miles southwest of Lincoln. Currently, there are no U.S. mines producing niobium. People who live near Elk Creek hope the mining project succeeds because a niobium mine could employ as many as 500 people, but residents aren't counting on it because there have been so many delays. Johnson County Commissioner Scotty Gottula said he hasn't heard anything from NioCorp in a long time. "We still hope the project goes forward. It would be good for the community," Gottula said. Residents learned to be cautious about mining companies years ago after Colorado-based Molycorp abandoned plans for an Elk Creek niobium mine in the 1990s. Niobium prices have increased since Molycorp abandoned the site, making a mine more likely. But the project site near Elk Creek has been relatively quiet since NioCorp completed a round of exploratory drilling in 2011.
NioCorp officials remain confident in the project, but they need outside experts to complete a full metallurgical analysis of the samples that have been drilled before investors will consider committing $300 million to $400 million for a mine. The decision on whether to build a mine is still about two years away."The entire process never gets done as quickly as I would like it to get done," Dickie said. NioCorp has struggled to raise money for the Elk Creek project because the funding market has tightened up in recent years, and Dickie said it has been especially hard for smaller companies to attract investors. But Dickie said that NioCorp cut its expenses sharply two years ago to help it withstand this lean period. "Corporate survival is not a question for us at all," Dickie said. "It's a question of advancing the project." Niobium hasn't been produced in the United States in significant amounts since 1959. The U.S. Geologic Survey estimates $500 million worth of niobium was imported in 2012, up from about $424 million the year before. The agency has said the Elk Creek deposit of niobium 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. ___ Follow Josh Funk online at www.twitter.com/funkwrite ___ Online: NioCorp Developments Ltd.: www.niocorp.com