Rare-earth metal discovery in Sweden will help consumers

Sweden has discovered what is billed as Europe’s biggest deposit of rare earth minerals – a crucial component of electronics and clean energy technology – giving a significant boost to the continent’s hunt for trade security.

LKAB, the Swedish state-owned mining company, announced Thursday that it found deposits of more than 1 million tons of rare earth metals in the country’s far northern Lapland province.

Products ranging from smartphones to electric vehicles and even military jets require these rare earth elements, which are not currently mined in Europe, the company said. Much of the world’s supply comes from China, which has used them as a geopolitical tool.

LKAB president Jan Mostrom said in a statement that the find could be a “significant building block” for Europe, which faces a “supply problem.” But the company also said that it would take at least a decade before the rare earth minerals discovered hit the market.

Here’s what to know about this major discovery and what it means for Western consumers.

Q. What are rare earth minerals and where are they found?

A. Rare earths are not actually that rare. They are a group of 17 chemical elements, composed of scandium, yttrium and lanthanides, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

But mining rare earth minerals is complex, as supply is not concentrated in one location. Mining them also affects the environment, since their ores can be laced with radioactive materials such as thorium and uranium. Refining the minerals can generate toxic and radioactive waste, which poses environmental and health risks if not properly disposed of.

China hosts the majority of the world’s reserve of rare earth minerals and is the world’s leading supplier. (The United States was the largest producer several decades ago.) While Brazil and Vietnam have significant reserves, they lag far behind in mining them.

Access to the minerals became an issue in the trade war with China during the administration of President Donald Trump. Beijing threatened to cut off exports to the United States in 2019 to retaliate against Trump’s measures, pushing prices up and prompting Trump to sign an executive order increasing domestic production. The Biden administration has also pushed for investments in that supply chain.

Other countries have also moved to reduce their reliance on China. Australia is spending millions to develop a rare earths mine and processing plant in its Northern Territory.

Q. What are rare earth minerals used for?

A. Multiple household goods, including televisions, computers, smartphones and lighting use rare earth minerals. Yttrium and europium, for instance, light up iPhone displays and allow them to vibrate.

They are also key elements of U.S.-made defense systems, including night-vision technology, jets and armored-vehicle alloys.

Rare earth minerals are critical for the global clean energy transition, as they are components of the magnets used in electric vehicles and wind turbines – although recently some companies have developed motors for electric vehicles that do not require rare earths.

Q. What does Sweden’s discovery mean for the climate?

A. LKAB’s find was welcomed in Europe, which has faced energy challenges amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The European Union also has a goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050.

In September, a senior E.U. official said that Europe’s climate ambitions were at risk without reliable supply chains. “Take China, with its quasi-monopoly on rare earths and permanent magnets and prices rising by 50-90% in the past year alone,” wrote Thierry Breton, an E.U. commissioner. “Supply of raw materials has become a real geopolitical tool.”

The European Raw Materials Alliance notes that while the European Union has a massive electric-motor manufacturing sector, “it is almost fully import dependent” when it comes to rare earth permanent magnets.

Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Ebba Busch said Thursday that Europe’s independence from Russia and China would begin with this mine.

Political leadership in the continent, she said, “must give the industry the conditions to switch to green and fossil-free production.”