Rare earths in Europe: "Exploiting the deposit will take 20 to 30 years".

In an interview, economic geologist Harald Elsner explains the significance of the discovery of the largest deposit of rare earths in Europe to date.

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  • Hanns-J. Neubert

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Fuel cells, hydrogen production and, not least, the magnets in electric cars: rare earths are closely linked to the technologies of the future. But for Europe, their extraction is predominantly associated with dependencies on other nations. This makes the latest discovery of rare earths in northern Sweden all the more promising. In a deposit called Per Geijer near Kiruna, the state-owned Swedish mining company LKAB had found the largest deposit of rare earths in Europe to date - more than one million tons. At the beginning of January, LKAB had already announced that it would invest one billion euros in the extraction of rare earths and phosphorus from the overburden of ore mining in Lapland, which had been piled up for more than 130 years. How should the find be evaluated? And: Does the deposit have the potential to defuse Europe's dependencies? Economic geologist Harald Elsner from the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hanover gives his assessment.

Mr. Elsner, what's going on in the far north of Europe?

Iron ore has been mined near Kiruna for more than 130 years, and is found there together with phosphates in the form of the mineral apatite. In turn, rare earths are found in this apatite. Of course, this has not only been known since this year, but for decades. LKAB has been involved in a research project with the University of Luleå for some time to investigate how this phosphate mineral apatite can be separated from the iron ore, in order to then also try to separate the rare earths from these phosphate mineral concentrates.

Why did LKAB announce this only now?

Now the new Swedish presidency of the EU Council and the meeting of the Council Commission in Kiruna have been used to announce this news about the reserves in one of many deposits of iron ore in northern Sweden as a scoop to the world.

From above: Where the Kiruna rare earth deposit is located.

(Bild: LKAB)

Are there possibilities to extract the rare earths in Kiruna as well?

LKAB has acquired a stake in the Norwegian company REEtec, which is now initially building a pilot plant to extract the rare earths. But to do this, they first take ore from a mine in Canada, which - as far as we know - doesn't even exist yet. Initially, 720 tons of rare earth oxides will be produced from this ore, which is 5 percent of European demand. From 2027 onward, they want to devote themselves to the material from Kiruna.

Why not just use the ore from Per Geijer?

The deposit has only been drilled for the time being. It will take at least another ten to 15 years before it can be explored in detail, a permit issued and a shaft constructed. And then a plant for extracting the rare earths has to be built, which will also take another four to five years until it functions smoothly.

So for the energy transition in Europe, where rare earths are urgently needed, this is of no use for the time being?

That has nothing to do with it at all. We have two dozen of this type of deposit in the world. The closest are in Greenland, where we have two large deposits, one with just under 5 million, the other with 6.5 million tons of rare earth oxides. These also include the heavy rare earths, of which dysprosium is particularly important for the energy transition. The Greenland deposits have also been well explored and there are already processing plans. What's missing are the investments, which amount to about one billion U.S. dollars per deposit.

How large are the world's reserves of rare earths?

The world's reserves, i.e. what is currently mineable and recoverable, will last about 170 years. The range of resources, i.e. what is suspected or where exploration is still needed, has now increased from 2,042 to 2,049 years as a result of the enormous discovery near Kiruna. So with rare earths, we are talking about the raw materials in the world with the largest reserves known anywhere.

From below: Insight into exactly where the deposit is located.

(Bild: LKAB)

Are there rare earth deposits in Germany and in Europe, apart from Greenland? If so, why are they not mined?

Yes, there is a deposit in Germany, in Storkwitz near Delitzsch in northern Saxony. It is one of the smallest known deposits in the world, which explains why it is not mined. It is not profitable. There are other deposits in Europe in Turkey, Portugal, Greece and, above all, in Norway, Sweden, Finland and, as I said, Greenland.

What would be needed to then exploit these deposits?

That is precisely one of the problems, in addition to the high investment costs. There is a long value chain involved. It starts when the ore is extracted from the earth. Then the rare earth minerals have to be separated and processed, and in most cases all the accompanying heavy metals are of no interest. Uranium and thorium, for example, are even a problem.

Then you get a mixed concentrate of rare earths, in which all 16 of these elements are present, which have to be separated from each other. The separation of the heavy rare earths is particularly difficult and only possible in China, which is the only country with this know-how. With very few exceptions - and these only concern the light rare earths - only the Chinese have mastered the subsequent enrichment to high-purity elements. Only then can they be alloyed and then used in the form of permanent magnets in components in the electronics industry, for example. From ore mining to the finished product, the rare earths are therefore transported several times across national borders.

So the Swedes would have to send their ore to China first?

They are trying to build their own plant in Sweden or Norway to separate, separate and enrich the light rare earths there. What heavy metals are then still available, they must indeed send to China. Such plants are highly complex and designed for only one mineral. Currently, there is no plant in the world that separates the rare earths from the phosphate ore, which can come from Sweden. That means you're starting from scratch there.

Then it will probably also take longer than 15 years for rare earths to come from northern Sweden?

Yes. It will take 20 to 30 years to use the rare earth content from this deposit in Europe. If there were such a plant in Sweden, it would be possible to produce it now, because iron ore mining has been producing this material for 130 years.

(jle)