Europe’s largest deposit of rare earths used for everything from cell phones to missiles has been discovered in Sweden.
No rare earths are mined in Europe at present and a Swedish minister has hailed the discovery as a way of reducing the European Union’s dependence on China.
The discovery is also seen as a “clincher” for a green transition, given the expected increase in demand for electric vehicles and wind turbines.
About 98% of rare earths used in the EU in 2021 are imported from China.
More than one million tons are reported to have now been found in the far north of Sweden. While significant, they constitute a fraction of the world’s 120 million tonnes of reserves, according to US estimates.
The term rare earth refers to a group of 17 elements that are used to make various products and infrastructure that are increasingly important to everyday life.
These elements can be found in cell phones, hard drives and trains. But they are also important for eco-friendly technologies including wind turbines and electric vehicles. Some of them are important for military equipment such as missile guidance systems.
Extraction is difficult and potentially damaging to the environment.
Demand for this metal is expected to increase fivefold by 2030.
“Lithium and rare earths will soon become more important than oil and gas,” the EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, said last year.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Sweden’s Energy Minister Ebba Busch said the European Union was “too dependent on other countries for these materials” and insisted a change was needed.
“Electrification, EU self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China will start at the mines,” he stressed.
The newly discovered raw materials may not reach the market before 10-15 years, says the CEO of mining company LKAB, Jan Mostrom. The licensing process takes time due to environmental risk evaluation.
Mostrom however called on the authorities to speed up the process, “to ensure increased mining of this type of raw material in Europe”.