Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 29 January 2023

Largest known deposit of rare earth elements

Source: By The Indian Express

Swedish state-owned mining company, LKAB, on 12 January 2023 announced that it has discovered more than one million tonnes of rare earth oxides in the northern area of the country. This is the largest known deposit in Europe, the company added.

During a press conference, also attended by Sweden’s Energy Minister Ebba Busch, LKAB’s President and CEO Jan Mostrom said, “This is good news, not only for LKAB, the region and the Swedish people, but also for Europe and the climate.”

Currently, no rare earths are mined in Europe and it mostly imports them from other regions. According to a report in the BBC, 98 per cent of rare earths used by the European Union were sent by China.

Electrification, the EU’s self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China will begin in the mine”, said Busch in a statement.

The discovery can also prove to be a significant turning point not just for the EU but also for other western countries as they have been trying to reduce their reliance on China for the import of these rare earth elements and other key industrial supplies, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

What are rare earths?

Rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table — the 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides, and have similar chemical properties.

The 17 rare earths are cerium (Ce)dysprosium (Dy)erbium (Er)europium (Eu)gadolinium (Gd)holmium (Ho)lanthanum (La)lutetium (Lu)neodymium (Nd)praseodymium (Pr)promethium (Pm)samarium (Sm)scandium (Sc)terbium (Tb)thulium (Tm)ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).

Despite their classification, most of these elements are not really “rare”. One of the rare earths, promethium, is radioactive.

What are rare earths used for?

These elements are important in technologies of consumer electronicscomputers and networkscommunicationsclean energyadvanced transportationhealthcareenvironmental mitigation, and national defence, among others.

Scandium is used in televisions and fluorescent lamps, and yttrium is used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. Rare earth elements are used in space shuttle componentsjet engine turbines, and dronesCerium, the most abundant rare earth element, is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.

In recent years, rare earths have become even more important because there has been an increase in demand for green energy. Elements like neodymium and dysprosium, which are used in wind turbine motors, are sought-after more than ever as wind mills across the world continue to grow.

Moreover, the push for switching from internal combustion cars to electric vehicles has also led to a rise in demand for rare earth magnets — made from neodymiumboron, and iron — and batteries.

What does the discovery mean for Europe and the world?

Against the backdrop of the fraught relations between China and other western countries, the new discovery of a deposit of rare earth elements in Sweden has come as a relief for the latter.

Over the years, China has repeatedly used its monopoly in the rare earths market for furthering its geopolitical agendas. For instance, in 2010, Beijing blocked Japan’s access to rare earth elements over Tokyo’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain. A decade later, when the Trump administration tried to take action against telecom giant Huawei, China “threatened to include certain products using rare earths in Beijing’s technology-export restrictions”, according to a report by Politico.

Therefore, it didn’t come as a surprise when last year in August, the US and 10 other nations — Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission — came together in a bid to break China’s dominance in the global market and formed the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP).

As per The Indian Express report, the alliance was “seen as primarily focused on evolving an alternative to China, which has created processing infrastructure in rare earth minerals and has acquired mines in Africa for elements such as Cobalt.”

However, China’s monopoly is likely to persist for the next few years. Experts suggest that it can take years to start operations at the Kiruna mine in Sweden, where the deposits have been found.

According to a Reuters report, LKAB has planned to submit an application for an “exploitation concession in 2023” but it might take 10 to 15 years for it to potentially begin mining the deposit and shipping to market.

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