Sweden discovers rare earth metals — and that could redefine Europe’s relationship with China

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Swedish company LKAB has discovered what’s claimed to be Europe’s biggest deposit of rare earth metals, promising a critical boost in the continent’s trade security and green transition.

“Rare earths” are a group of 17 chemical elements composed of scandium, yttrium, and lanthanides. Contrary to their name, rare earths are actually abundant; their rarity stems from the complexity of their extraction, separation, and refining, which can generate toxic and radioactive waste, negatively impacting the environment.

But despite their environmental hazards, they are crucial for the manufacture of numerous high-tech products. This ranges from household goods (TVs, computers, and smartphones) to medical equipment (X-Ray and MRI scanning) and defense systems (jets and night vision tech, among others).

Most notably, they’re also key for the clean energy transition, as they are components of the magnets used in EVs and wind turbines.

With no mining of its own, the EU imports 98% of its rare earth metals supply from China, which houses the majority of the world’s reserve and is the biggest global supplier.

LKAB’s discovery, however, could be a game changer. The state-owned company said that it has found a deposit — named Per Geijer — of over one million tons in the Kiruna area, located in Lapland within the Arctic Circle.

Sweden's LKAB finds the biggest rare earth metals deposit in Europe
The Per Geijer deposit is in close proximity to existing mining operations in Kiruna. Credit: LKAB

“Electrification, the EU’s self-suffiency and independence from Russia and China will begin in the mine,” Sweden’s Minister for Energy, Business, and Industry, Ebba Busch, said in a statement.

“We need to strengthen industrial value chains in Europe and create real opportunities for the electrification of our societies. Politics must give the industry the conditions to switch to green and fossil-free production,” she noted.

Reducing reliance on foreign supply chains and ensuring access to critical raw materials is an integral focus of the EU agenda as well as Europe’s aim to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

“Lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed during a speech in September. “Our demand for rare earths alone will increase fivefold by 2030,” she added, highlighting the imperative to avoid becoming dependent as on oil and gas.

In the same line of thought, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton underlined the need for action. “Take China, with its quasi-monopoly on rare earths and permanent magnets and prices rising by 50-90% in the past year alone,” he wrote. “Supply of raw materials has become a real geopolitical tool.”

While LKAB is already investing heavily in the project to move forward, President and Group CEO Jan Moström emphasized that there’s a long road ahead. He expects that it’ll take several years to investigate the deposit, assess its profitability, and evaluate the sustainability and environmental impact of the mining process. Following that, LKAB can proceed with an environmental review application and a permit application.

“If we look at how other permit processes have worked within our industry, it will take at least 10 to 15 years before we can actually begin mining and deliver raw materials to the market,” Moström explained.

Providing that LKAB finds a way to mitigate the environmental cost entailed in mining, the Per Geijer deposit could provide Europe with the impetus in needs to ensure domestic supply of critical raw materials and facilitate its green transition.