A great discovery to ensure European independence in raw materials? The Swedish company LKAB claims to have identified several deposits of rare earths at one of its sites in Kiruna, in the north of the Scandinavian country. This discovery would constitute the largest reserve of rare metals in Europe, with more than one million tonnes of rare earth oxides.
An operation in 10 or 15 years?
Currently, no site exploits rare earths on the European continent. Nestled unevenly underground, these minerals are favored by the tech industry. Their use comes into play in the composition of electric cars, telephones, computers and all advanced technologies. With the acceleration of the electrification of the European vehicle fleet, demand should explode in the coming years.
Still nearly 60% dependent on China for the exploitation of rare earths, Europe could eventually become sovereign. “Electrification, EU self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China will start with the mine. We need to strengthen industrial value chains in Europe and create real opportunities for the electrification of our societies”welcomed the Swedish Minister of Energy, Trade and Industry, Ebba Busch.
The ensuing media frenzy parallels the long years needed to start operating the mine. LKAB hopes to be able to obtain a concession permit this year for operation in 10 or 15 years. In its press release, the company claims to have already prepared a gallery of about 700 m towards the new deposit in order to “study it in depth and detail”.
This potential exploitation should not fail to be the subject of disputes in the country of Greta Thunberg. To extract precious metals from the ground, industrial processes require a large amount of energy and often generate unwanted pollution. This is particularly the case in China where the raw material is processed by leaching in heap.
“Products resulting from this acid mine drainage can then migrate into subsurface environments, resulting in severe rare earth contamination of soils, waters and crops. Added to this are health problems, including the contamination of surface and ground water by metals (such as rare earths), exposure to high concentrations of sulfur dioxide, particles…”explains Olivier Pourret, teacher-researcher in geochemistry and responsible for scientific integrity and open science in a scientific paper to The Conversation.
“We are aware of the land use and impact challenges that exist to make it a mine and will need to be analyzed to see how to avoid, minimize and offset them”, assures Jan Moström, CEO of LKAB. A real ambivalence between mineral sovereignty and ecological awareness which should not fail to spark debate within the Old Continent.