Swedish mining company LKAB has claimed to have found the largest rare earth deposit in Europe – a development that is potentially great news for electronic product makers.

LKAB announced last week that Europe’s largest deposit of rare earth metals had been located in the Kiruna area of northern Sweden.

Rare earth metals are commonly used in a range of consumer electronic products from mobile phones, electric vehicles, chips, solar panels and LCDs.

Rare earth metals

Apple for example in September 2019 announced that it reached a deal with an unnamed supplier to reuse recycled rare earth elements in its iPhone handsets.

There are 17 rare earth metals, including lithium (used in batteries), gallium (used as a silicon replacement material), indium (used in liquid crystal displays and solar panels) and selenium (used in photocopying, photocells, light meters, solar cells etc).

These metals are known as “hitchhiker” metals because they are available only as by-products of mining major industrial metals such as aluminium, copper and zinc. This means that it is hard to ramp up the production of these whenever certain industries face a shortage.

At the moment China dominates the rare earth market and accounts for 60 percent of global production, according to the US Geological Service.

The European Union gets 98 percent of the minerals from China, according to the European Commission.

Meanwhile the US has been restricting vital silicon chips, IP and manufacturing equipment from Chinese manufacturers. But Beijing, via its state-controlled media has implied that it could restrict rare earths sales to the United States.

The US is therefore undertaking steps to lessen its reliance on China for the minerals, and is seeking to strengthen its domestic supply chain.

In 2021, the Biden administration targeted rare earths, among other domestic supply chain priorities, to reduce its vulnerability to geopolitical tensions.

Swedish deposit

Swedish mining company LKAB said that following successful exploration, it has discovered “mineral resources of rare earth metals exceeding one million tonnes of rare earth oxides and the largest known deposit of its kind in Europe.”

“This is good news, not only for LKAB, the region and the Swedish people, but also for Europe and the climate,” said Jan Moström, president and group CEO of LKAB.

“This is the largest known deposit of rare earth elements in our part of the world, and it could become a significant building block for producing the critical raw materials that are absolutely crucial to enable the green transition,” said Moström. “We face a supply problem. Without mines, there can be no electric vehicles.”

At the moment, no rare earth elements are mined in Europe, but demand is expected to increase dramatically as a result of electrification, which will lead to a global undersupply.

Coupled this with the rising geopolitical tensions with China, the discovery in Sweden will be welcome news.

“Electrification, the EU’s self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China will begin in the mine,” said Sweden’s minister for energy, business and industry, Ebba Busch.

“We need to strengthen industrial value chains in Europe and create real opportunities for the electrification of our societies,” said Busch. “Politics must give the industry the conditions to switch to green and fossil-free production. Here, the Swedish mining industry have a lot to offer. The need for minerals to carry out the transition is great.”

LKAB warned that the road to possible mining of the deposit is long, but the plan is to be able to submit an application for an exploitation concession in 2023.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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