JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP
Swedish mining group LKAB has announced that it has identified the “largest known deposit” of rare earths in Europe. (Illustrative photo: LKAB iron mine in Kiruna, Sweden, August 2021).
ENVIRONMENT – Metals are not so rare, but they are important for the green transition. Sweden’s LKAB mining group announced their discovery on January 12 in the Kiruna region of Sweden’s Far North. “largest known deposit” Europe’s rare earths, it would contain more than a million tons of metal.
The discovery is important at a time when Europe is worried about its dependence on China, the world’s largest producer, for supplies of these minerals, which are used in electric vehicle batteries and wind turbines. .
“This could become an important building block for the production of critical raw materials that are absolutely essential for the green transition”, welcomed Jan Moström, CEO of LKAB public group, in a press release. They are indeed strategic metals because they are essential for tomorrow’s economy, especially for key technologies of the energy transition.
- Where do these metals come from?
Rare earths are composed of 17 raw materials (praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, etc.) discovered in Sweden at the end of the 18th century, each of which has different properties. These elements are often grouped under the same name because they are in the same soil.
The ore must be processed after it is extracted from the ground “separation”the fact that different minerals are differentiated through chemical operations that sometimes involve acids.
- Are rare earths really rare?
They are actually quite numerous on the planet. Before the Swedish discovery was announced Thursday, the US Geological Survey estimated world reserves at 120 million tons. More than a third, i.e. 44 million tons, is located in China, 22 million in Vietnam, 21 million in Brazil, 12 million in Russia and 7 million in India.
“As the demand for these raw materials increases, people are looking for them and finding more of them. The problem is more in the relationship between the cost of production and the market price.”John Seaman, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), analyzes.
However, demand is expected to continue to grow. KU Leuven University has calculated for Eurométaux, the association of European rare metals producers, that the EU will need rare earth metals by this date to replace hydrocarbons and achieve carbon neutrality in 2050.
- What is so special about them?
Each of these minerals has an industrial use, between europium useful for television screens, cerium for polishing glass or lanthanum for catalysts in gasoline engines.
It can be found in a drone, a wind turbine, a hard drive, an electric car motor, a telescope lens or a fighter jet. “Some of these elements are more or less irreplaceable or at high cost”John Seaman reports to AFP.
Indispensable because their properties are sometimes unique, they are preferred for making permanent magnets for offshore wind turbines, for example, due to their qualities of neodymium and dysprosium. Once installed, the magnets require little maintenance and provide strong performance, facilitating the operation of these offshore installations.
These rare earths are also important during the climate crisis. Among its efforts to curb global warming, the European Union has stopped selling new petrol and diesel cars, which will be replaced by electric models from 2035.
- China is leading, the West is lagging behind?
However, until now, Europe was dependent on the Middle Kingdom and bought these minerals from abroad. China is very rich and dominates the market “the culmination of long-term industrial policy” and because of “Benefits of delayed regulation of extractive industries”Jane Nakano, a researcher at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington, emphasizes.
Over the years, and with huge public investment, Beijing has been able to maintain an extensive ore processing network, leading many of the planet’s producers today to export their ore there.
Jane Nakano reports that China has also filed more rare earth patents than the rest of the world combined. However, this dominance came at a heavy environmental price.
But this new discovery, estimated at over a million tonnes in the Kiruna mining area, could well change the cards and give Europe an ounce of autonomy. European industry desperately needs these metals to make electric cars and even wind turbines.
- Why the shift?
Tensions abound between China and the West amid trade and geopolitical differences. Brussels and Washington feel an urgency to diversify their supplies of this vital raw material.
Fears of congestion also draw on painful precedent: Tokyo saw rare earths cut off by China in 2010 over a territorial dispute. Japan has since diversified its supplies, signed contracts with Australia’s Lynas in Malaysia and developed its recycling sector.
Another warning came during the US trade war with Beijing. In May 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping later visited the rare earth factory, a gesture interpreted as a veiled threat of an embargo.
For all these reasons, the discovery of this huge deposit for Europe will have a significant impact on reducing its dependence on foreign mines, but ” Long road “ According to Sweden’s LKAB group, work remains to be done before the mine is put into operation.
When asked about the expected date of the first rods, Jan Moström, CEO of LKAB, said that it would depend on the demand and experience of car manufacturers and the speed of obtaining the necessary permits. “10-15 years old”.
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