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.


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