ELK CREEK -- As soon as darkness sets in, the night crew from the Black Rock Drilling Corp. turns on the floodlights in the middle of a wheat field a few hundred feet west of Nebraska 50.

The job of drilling down 2,500 feet into a volcanic rock formation to explore for the rare element known as niobium began last Thursday and will continue seven days a week, 24 hours a day, until it's finished.

Then, as residents in and around the tiny Johnson County town of Elk Creek hold their breath, the crew will move on to the second of six sites and start again.

If the area surrounding St. Peter's Lutheran Church proves to be as rich a source of niobium and other rare metals as Peter Dickie believes, heavy breathing is a matter of time.

"Things are continuing to look very good," Dickie, chief executive of a company called Quantum Rare Earth Development, said from its Vancouver headquarters Thursday. "Every sort of potential speed bump we've run into we've been able to overcome."

Dealing with a steep learning curve on niobium becomes necessary in Southeast Nebraska for several reasons:

* Niobium deposits have not been turned up at profitable levels anywhere in the United States so far. Brazil has been the main source up to now.

* The market price has gone up to about $20 per pound for ferroniobium that can be used for such purposes as high-strength steel in the aeronautics industry.

* Dickie and his cohorts have gone public this spring with their intentions at a site that was explored once before, in the 1970s and 1980s, and then abandoned because the cost-benefit ratio didn't pan out.

The budget for what began a week ago is $2 million. "That's going to give us six holes," he said.

As Quantum representatives worked quietly to persuade some 50 landowners in a rural area of perhaps 15 square miles to sign mineral lease options last year, visions of hundreds of jobs associated with an eventual mine shaft and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue stirred excitement.

That's a long reach from what's visible so far.

The only evidence of something important happening are the core samples being collected in an outbuilding at the mother-daughter farmstead of Elda and Beverly Beethe and the diamond-tipped drilling rig pushing past the 1,300-foot level.

In the building, Andy Hoffman of Dahrouge Geological Consulting in Edmonton, Alberta, Daniel Mershon of Key Landmark LLC in Wichita, Kan., and local contractor Greg Krueger direct the attention of media visitors to a chest-high wooden crate that Krueger built for the exploratory task.

Inside are cylinder-shaped rock samples pulled from underground in 10-foot lengths and then broken into two-foot pieces for shipping to an out-of-state lab in cardboard boxes.

"It's all volcanic formations," said Krueger, "volcanoes that never surfaced."

Hoffman confirms that it's the desired magnesium carbonate by scratching the surface and pouring on a bit of hydrochloric acid. There's a slight, but important, foaming effect.

The level of niobium content remains to be seen, although Mershon seemed at ease with that point. "The thing about niobium is you can bring it up and the market is already determined," he said.

Mershon describes himself as "a land man," meaning that he spearheaded efforts to get landowners to sign five-year lease options. This is the second year of that timetable.

Dickie praised what Mershon accomplished. His mission was to "sit with the community, spend time there, sit with the owners one by one, explain to them exactly who we were and what we were looking at doing."

Dickie said predecessor MolyCorp drilled about 100 test holes "in sort of a niobium core zone" before leaving the scene.

A second round of Quantum test drilling will "definitely" happen in 2011.

"We'll still have a fairly substantial amount of money in the bank" after round one.

Mershon said time off isn't an option for the team probing for niobium treasure far beneath his feet and at a rate of 200 feet per day on a good day.

"We want to keep that drill turning."

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com.

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com

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