2023 is bringing, almost every day, encouraging news on the environmental front; offshore wind is experimenting with giant wind turbines capable of producing 44.8 kWh of electricity with just one turn of the shovelthe potential of the exploitation of waves for energy purposes is gaining ground, even reaching overseas and now Europe will be able to create a complete value chain for its green transition, making itself independent of supplies from other countries, such as Russia and China.
The Swedish mining group Lkab, in fact, announced in these hours that it had discovered, in the Kiruna area, “largest known field in Europe” of rare earths.
In particular, according to company estimates, the significant deposits would contain over one million tons of these precious minerals for the digital and green energy industry.
“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 could become a fundamental element for the production of the absolutely crucial raw materials to enable the green transition. We are facing a supply problem. Without mines, there can be no electric vehicles”said Jan Moström, Group President and CEO, LKAB.
Currently no rare earth elements are mined in Europe; at the same time, the demand for these minerals is destined to increase drastically with the exponential growth of electrification.
According to experts, the increasingly voracious market hunger will lead to a global under-supply at a time of rising geopolitical tensions.
According to the assessment of the European Commission, the demand for rare earth elements for electric cars and wind turbines, among others, is expected to increase more than five-fold by 2030.
Today the Old Continent is heavily dependent on imports of these minerals, sector in which China dominates almost entirely, and this circumstance exponentially increases the vulnerability of our industry.
The rare earths they are essential in many high-tech production processes and are used to produce, among others, electric vehicles, wind turbines, portable electronic devices, microphones and speakers.
“The EU’s electrification, 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 industry the conditions to switch to green and fossil-free production. Swedish mining has a lot to offer here.” Ebba Busch, Sweden’s deputy state minister and minister for energy, business and industry, said.
The road to European independence is therefore traced, but still long.
The first step is one request for concession to exploit the Per Geijer field in order to be able to investigate it further and verify the conditions for the extraction, an application that LKAB intends to submit before the end of the year.
The mining group has already started preparing a drift, several kilometers long, at a depth of about 700 meters in the already existing Kiruna minetowards the new deposit to be able to study it in depth and in detail.
“We are already investing heavily moving forward and expect it to take several years to investigate the deposit and the conditions for extracting it profitably and sustainably. We are acutely aware of the challenges that accompany land use and the impacts that exist from turning it into a mine and that will need to be analyzed to see how to avoid, minimize and offset them. Only then can we proceed with an application for an environmental review and apply for a permit”explained Jan Moström.
The CEO then added:
“If we look at how other authorization processes have worked within our industry, it will be at least 10-15 years before we can actually start extracting and supplying raw materials to the market. And then we’re talking about Kiruna, where LKAB has been mining for more than 130 years. Here, the attention of the European Commission on this issue, to guarantee access to critical materials, and the Critical Raw Materials Act on which the Commission is working, is decisive. We need to change the authorization processes to ensure more extraction of this type of raw material in Europe. Access is now a crucial risk factor both for the competitiveness of European industry and for the climate transition”.
The promising results of LKAB’s ongoing exploration at Kiruna and Gällivare were presented last spring. More in-depth studies have shown an increase from 400 million tons of high iron ore resources to over 500 million tonswith Per Geijer’s filing containing up to to seven times the grade of phosphorus ore deposits that LKAB currently mines in Kiruna.
Phosphorus is one of three nutrients in mineral fertilizers required for food production and is on the EU list of critical minerals.
Moreover, According to Geijer, it would contain more than one million tons of rare metals in the form of oxides, which are essential for the production of rare earth elements (REE ).
Such a deposit would be enough to meet a large part of future EU demand for the production of permanent magnets, required for electric motors of electric vehicles and wind turbines.
LKAB has welcomed the opportunities arising from this discovery with great enthusiasm keeping respect for the environment in high consideration, revisiting and re-inventing the way minerals are extracted.
Since Per Geijer’s rare earth elements occur, along with phosphorus, in the mineral apatite, in what is primarily an iron ore deposit, it is possible to transform what until yesterday was considered a by-product, a waste, into a resource.
“LKAB is planning a circular industrial park in Luleå with new technology for the mining and processing of phosphorus, rare earth elements and fluorine, based on today’s existing mining production. There, instead of throwing the material into landfills, it can be used to create new sustainable products. The start of production is scheduled for 2027″said Leif Boström, Senior Vice President, Business Area Special Products, LKAB.
Ultimately, in Norway it started – and is continuing with enormous success – the Revolt Northvolt program for the recycling of EV (electric vehicles) batteries.
In November 2021 the Swedish company announced that it had succeeded in realizing the first NMC battery (acronym that comes from the three components present, namely nickel, manganese and cobalt) using 100% recycled material for the cell.
“What we’ve shown here is a clear path to close the loop on batteries and that there is a sustainable and environmentally preferable alternative to conventional mining for raw materials for battery production“Emma Nehrenheim, environmental director of Northvolt and responsible for Revolt, the company’s recycling program, commented at the time.
“The recycling process can recover up to 95% of the metals in a battery to a level of purity equal to fresh virgin material“ he added. “What we need now is to scale up recycling capabilities in anticipation of future battery volumes that will require it.”
From 2021 to today Northvolt has expanded its network of recycling hubs not only in Sweden and Norway but also in Germanythrowing the foundations to close perfectly in a circle of the three Rs: reduce, recycle, reuse.
This, in addition to the discovery of the Kiruna deposit, gives Europe excellent cards to develop and support its energy transition, from fossil to renewable, in a fully sustainable way.
Europe too will have its rare earths and will be able to emancipate itself from Russia and China