LKAB, a mining company based in Sweden, has identified significant deposits of rare earth elements in the Kiruna area, which are essential for the manufacture of electric vehicles and wind turbines. The company reports mineral resources exceeding one million tonnes of rare earth oxides, making it the largest known deposit of its kind in Europe.
LKAB, a mining company based in Sweden, and the European Commission are the key players in this discovery.
Why it matters
The discovery of this large deposit of rare earth metals in Europe is important for several reasons. Firstly, it could provide a significant source of rare earth elements for European manufacturers, reducing their dependence on imports from China, which currently dominates the market. Additionally, the increasing demand for rare earth elements, driven by the growth of the electric vehicle and wind turbine industries, is expected to lead to a global undersupply. This deposit could play a crucial role in addressing this supply problem and enabling the green transition.
However, the road to the possible mining of the deposit is long and challenging, and it will take several years to investigate the deposit and the conditions for profitably and sustainably mining it. The company also expects that it will be at least 10–15 years before it can begin mining and deliver raw materials to the market.
The European Commission’s focus on this issue and the Critical Raw Materials Act it is currently working on is crucial in ensuring increased mining of this type of raw material in Europe and addressing the access risk factor for both the competitiveness of European industry and the climate transition.
Although LKAB’s claim of finding 1 million tonnes of rare earth metals is impressive, things are not as simple as they appear. Firstly, LKAB reported the discovery of large deposits, but it is too early to talk about a significant deposit. Confirming this requires detailed geological exploration, which will allow for the further study of the mineralogy and geochemistry of the identified deposits. Geoinformation models and reserve calculations will then need to be made, and the average rare earth content calculated. Only then can it be determined whether this constitutes a significant deposit. Also, it appears from LKAB’s press release that the rare earth metals have been found in apatite, a phosphate-bearing mineral present in the iron ore mined by LKAB. Apatite is a byproduct for LKAB, and the company must either sell it to external customers or dispose of it in waste dumps. The apatite from LKAB most likely contains rare earth metals of the so-called light class, which are abundant on the global market (while medium and heavy classes are always in demand). As a result, the prospects for their successful sale remain bleak. It should be noted that attempts have been made in Russia to extract rare earth metals from apatite. For example, Akron Group began manufacturing them in 2016, but was forced to discontinue production in 2021 due to unprofitability.