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Scientists uncover Europe’s largest rare earth deposit in Sweden

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The discovery of the largest known rare earth element deposit in Europe, which is necessary for the production of electric vehicles, in far-northern Sweden has raised expectations that Europe will be able to reduce its reliance on China.

The newly discovered deposit, which was discovered near the Swedish mining company LKAB’s iron ore mine, included more than a million tonnes of rare earth oxides, the company reported on Thursday.

“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,” LKAB’s chief executive Jan Mostrom said in a statement.

“We face a supply problem. Without mines, there can be no electric vehicles”, Mostrom added.

Although the discovery is thought to be the largest ever made in Europe, it is still considered to be a minor find globally, accounting for less than 1% of the 120 million tonnes that the US Geological Survey estimates to have been made worldwide.

According to the European Commission, 98 percent of the rare earths used in the EU were imported from China in 2021, which led Brussels to compel its constituent nations to establish their own extraction capabilities.

LKAB’s find was presented as a delegation from the European Commission visited Sweden, which took over the rotating EU presidency at the start of the year.

“Today, the EU is way too dependent on other countries for these materials”, Swedish Energy Minister Ebba Busch told a press conference, pointing specifically to Russia and China.

“This must change. We must take responsibility for the raw material supply needed for the (green) transition”, she added.

The European Union has agreed to phase out new CO2-emitting vehicles by 2035, effectively banning combustion engine cars, meaning the need for rare earth materials will only increase.

In the short term, Busch said the EU needed to “diversify” its trade.

“But in the long run, we cannot rely on trade agreements only”, she said.

Mostrom said the full extent of the deposit had yet to be established.

“We are continuing to conduct exploration to see how big this is,” Mostrom told AFP, adding that LKAB was also still in the process of figuring out how the new deposit could be mined.

Mostrom said it was difficult to accurately gauge the impact of the discovery on reducing Europe’s dependence on Chinese imports.

But he said he was confident “it will have a huge impact”.

Asked during a press conference when the deposit could actually be mined and deliver raw materials to the market, Mostrom said it would largely depend on how quickly permits could be secured.

But based on experience, it would likely be “10 to 15 years”, he said.

According to LKAB, the rare earth elements found in the Per Geijer deposit occurred “in what is mainly an iron ore deposit and which may therefore be produced as by-products,” creating new opportunities for potentially “competitive mining”.

Rare earth minerals with names like neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium are crucial to the manufacture of magnets used in industries of the future, like wind turbines and electric cars.

They are also present in consumer goods such as smartphones, computer screens, and telescopic lenses.

Others have more traditional uses, like cerium for glass polishing and lanthanum for car catalysts or optical lenses.

Sweden is one of the EU’s biggest mining countries.

More than 90 percent of the EU’s iron ore production comes from the Scandinavian country, which also has the bloc’s largest lead and zinc production, the second largest silver production, and among the highest gold and copper production, according to the Geological Survey of Sweden.

Source: AFP

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