Critical rare earth elements could be produced sustainably in Europe
A European rare earth element value chain for the availability of critical raw materials would be achievable with sufficient support, Development Manager Kaisa Kiipula writes in our blog.
2. December 2021
Kaisa Kiipula, Development Manager, Finnish Minerals Group
In 1794, Johan Gadolin, a chemist from Turku, discovered a previously unknown elemental substance, yttrium, which is named after its site of discovery, the town of Ytterby in Sweden. Yttrium was the first ever found of the 17 rare earth elements (REE) known today. REEs are used in, for example, renewable energy applications (e.g. wind turbines, solar cells) in the electricity sector, electronics and car industry (e.g. electric cars, rechargeable batteries), medicine and the defence industry.
REEs are extremely important especially to carbon neutral technologies, and demand for them is expected to multiply in the future. For this reason, the EU has determined them as critical raw materials of high economic importance, whose supply must be ensured.
One of Europe’s potential REE deposits is in Sokli
Despite their name, REEs are not particularly scarce. When found, they are typically deposited as trace elements within other minerals or widely dispersed in low concentrations, which makes their recovery more challenging and expensive than usual.
Currently, most of the global supply of REEs originates from China. Highly centralised and limited production can create a serious bottleneck in the value chain. The development of similar value chains has also been started in recent years in Europe, where production so far has been very limited, and in North America, where steps have been taken to increase REE production after a less active period.
One of Europe’s interesting REE deposits has been identified in Savukoski at Sokli, the rights to which Finnish Minerals Group acquired in late 2020. Found already in the 1960s, the deposit contains, for example, neodymium, which is used, for example, in electric cars. The Sokli deposit has high potential but further studies will be needed before its potential can be tapped into.
Building and initiation of the European value chain requires support
There are also other reasons supporting the production of REEs in Europe and Finland than ensuring access to them. In Finland, mining is heavily regulated, and production is managed with emphasis on the environmental aspects. Building a complete value chain for metals in Europe improves the traceability of minerals and the transparency of production, which are important for the sustainability of production.
The European Commission has identified the importance of European REE deposits, and at present, the Commission has many relevant EU-wide initiatives, programmes and calls for funding. It seems certain that we will see progress around the European REE value chain in the coming years. In the end, taking projects all the way to production largely depends on whether they receive sufficient support.