Share this on
December - January 2023

The largest known deposit of rare earth elements in Europe was discovered in Sweden

Francesca Del Bello

The finding might question the Chinese monopoly on these raw materials, crucial elements of the green transition and digitization, guaranteeing Europe the security of supplies
Microchips, batteries - including those intended for electric vehicles, photovoltaic panels, screens and televisions, computer memory, but also high-tech devices intended for the defense and the medical industry: these are just some of the equipments where rare earths elements - those chemical elements described by several sources as the true protagonists of the digital development of our age and of the energy and ecological transition - are used. According to the definition proposed by the IUPAC - International Union of Applied Chemistry, the term Rare Earth Elements - REE identifies 17 metals of the periodic table: 15 lanthanoids, plus scandium and yttrium. Discovered in succession between the late 1700s and 1900s (with the exception of promethium, artificially created in 1947), rare earths elements are found in relatively abundant quantities within the earth's crust (some of these elements are more abundant, for example, of copper and gold). What defines their exceptional nature is the difficulty of identifying it - rare earths elements in nature are always found mixed with other minerals - and, above all, the complexity of extracting and processing the pure mineral: "rare", therefore, are mainly deposits large enough to make extraction profitable. Moreover, the extraction of such elements can bring with it serious environmental risks, linked mostly to the extensive use of acids in the filtering phases during the process, which generate large quantities of toxic waste. The highest concentrations of rare metals are found in China, Russia, the United States, Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Canada and South Africa: however, it is China that holds about a third of all the reserves identified to date and dominates over other states in the production and extraction processes - effectively holding a real monopoly, on which Europe also depends.

However, news is coming from Sweden that could - in the medium term - change the current balance and reduce Beijing's power over the precious elements: LKAB, a mining company owned by the Swedish government, has in fact announced that it has identified the largest deposit of rare earth elements known so far in Europe. “This is good news, not only for LKAB, the region and the Swedish people, but also for Europe and the climate. This is the largest known deposit of rare earth elements in our part of the world, and it could become a significant building block for producing the critical raw materials that are absolutely crucial to enable the green transition.” says Jan Moström, President and Group CEO, LKAB.

However, the road towards European self-sufficiency in the supply of rare earth elements is not so short: the first step will be to obtain the concession to proceed with in-depth exploration of the deposit, to evaluate its dimensions and extraction conditions: in fact, the exact size of the reservoir is yet unknown. Exploration that, alone, will take several years. Only then it will be possible to ask for permission to start with the actual extraction procedures. “If we look at how other permit processes have worked within our industry, it will be at least 10-15 years before we can actually begin mining and deliver raw materials to the market. And then we are talking about Kiruna, where LKAB has been mining ore for more than 130 years. […] We must change the permit processes to ensure increased mining of this type of raw material in Europe. Access is today a crucial risk factor for both the competitiveness of European industry and the climate transition”, Moström continues. The call of the LKAB managers is therefore addressed to the European institutions, asking them to intervene to speed up the procedures and allow for intervention on the field in the shortest possible time.
A position also supported by Ebba Busch, Swedish Minister for Energy, Business and Industry: “Electrification, the EU’s self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China will begin in the mine. We need to strengthen industrial value chains in Europe and create real opportunities for the electrification of our societies. Politics must give the industry the conditions to switch to green and fossil-free production. Here, the Swedish mining industry have a lot to offer.

Do not miss any article from the Autopromotec Blog! Subscribe to our newsletter!


You might be interested in