From magnets in computers and smartphones, lenses for telescopes and metals in aircraft engines, to contrast agents for MRI scans, Rare Earth Elements (REE) are used to make a long list of the high technology products we surround ourselves with every day. Yet they are hidden from view most of the time. That’s why they have been dubbed the ‘invisible metals of modern society.’
Europe’s supply chain for REE, however, is complex and inefficient. In order to secure a more sustainable and environmentally friendly supply, Golder Associates is working with Tasman Metals Ltd in Sweden on one of Europe’s most exciting mining exploration sties. In this article in Mining Journal, Golder’s business unit manager for environmental services in Sweden, Henning Holmström, explains what is needed to realize responsible REE mining and a sustainable supply chain.
Henning goes into detail about Norra Kärr and Olserum, two mining sites in Sweden where Golder and Tasman is undertaking an advanced exploration projects. Golder has used its expertise in Environmental Impacts Assessments (EIAs), and all other areas of mining operations, to ensure the project has all permits needed and is well prepared for a full feasibility study. Henning also links the Swedish project to the broader work of the EU expert group ERECON (European Rare Earths Competency Network) in establishing a solid supply chain for all the European manufacturers depending on REE in their industry production.
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These metals of modern society need a secure route to market
From magnets in computers and smartphones, lenses for telescopes and metals in aircraft engines, to contrast agents for MRI scans, Rare Earth Elements (REE) are used to make a long list of the high technology products we surround ourselves with every day.
For the last decade, China – the world’s main exporter of REEs – has been in an on-off trade conflict with several other countries. A World Trade Organization ruling earlier this year means that China has had to drop its export quotas on REEs, but tensions are still present in the market and Europe’s REE supply chain is complex, problematic and inefficient.
Yet they are hidden from view for most of the time. That is why they have been dubbed the ‘invisible metals of modern society’. Now, REEs are at the forefront of Nordic exploration.
For a whole host of European manufacturers, getting a more efficient and sustainable REE supply chain could be vital for future growth. For European mining too, REE opportunities could provide an important financial upswing. That is why Tasman and Golder Associates REE advanced exploration project in Sweden – where many REEs were first discovered – is so exciting.
Norra Kärr and Olserum
Centrally located in southern Sweden, along the main motorways and train lines linking Sweden’s capital Stockholm to Denmark and the rest of Europe, are the Norra Kärr and Olserum projects. It is here Tasman, with the help of Golder since 2011, has started evaluating the opportunity for REE mining. With a projected plus 60-year mine life, the sites have the potential to supply the European manufacturing industries with a long-term solution to its REE supply chain challenges.
Tasman has completed the pre-feasibility study at Norra Kärr and has a 25-year mining lease (in Swedish exploitation concession). The company has also applied for a mining lease for Olserum.
The pre-feasibility study has shown that the Norra Kärr site has a high Heavy Rare Earth Element (HREE) grade and that the site will be able to produce more than 200t/y of dysprosium oxide for at least 20 years. These are very promising beginnings. The full feasibility is pending, while mine construction could be initiated within a few years if the plan can attract finance.
It is not only the deposit that indicates Norra Kärr could provide a strong platform from which to launch a sustainable European REE supply chain. The site also has unusually low levels of radioactivity.
Additionally, the small amount of waste mean that production will get both an economical and environmental advantage. The non-REE rock on the site contains high levels of nepheline and feldspar – minerals widely consumed in the ceramics industries. Waste management is often a challenge on a mine site, as Golder well knows from its experience working with the biggest mining companies across the world, and with less waste the overall waste-management requirements become less time and resource consuming. This is a great advantage when looking to optimise mining operations.
Norra Kärr and Olserum represent opportunities for Sweden and Europe to take back the historical momentum on REEs, which is also an increasing priority for European politicians. Recently, the EU put together a group of experts to form the European Rare Earths Competency Network (ERECON). ERECON is mapping the opportunities and potential roadblocks for REE supply in Europe, as well as the end user supply needs.
The first step for creating a sustainable supply chain is a strong and responsible mine site.
A responsible mining project means being environmentally, socially and economically viable – both for mining companies and affected communities. Golder consults on responsible access to resources and is a leading authority on Environmental and Social Impact Assessments. Making sure all the preparatory work is responsibly executed at an early stage is not only important to secure permits and support from local communicates, but also to secure financial backing and to keep costs down. A sustainable mine site is thus not only valuable for external stakeholders, but also for companies themselves.
For the Norra Kärr project, Golder has worked together with Tasman to secure all permits. Since the site’s discovery in 2009 and Golder’s introduction to the project in 2011, the companies have closely cooperated on making sure all aspects of the project are in line with national and international regulations. They have also emphasised the connections to local communities. With the strong infrastructure links and potential for nepheline and feldspar mining by-products, the contribution to local business activity and employment could be substantial. Meeting both the formal and informal requirements from stakeholders like this is essential for exploration and development projects.
In a world of increasing consumer power, projects that fail to demonstrate responsibility will struggle against more conscientious competitors. This can also affect the willingness of financial backers. The key is to meet all of the social, environmental and financial needs of all of the different stakeholders at the same time. This is a delicate balancing act that Golder knows well from mining projects across the world – and the Swedish REE sites are great examples of promising projects that promote responsible mining while meeting development targets.
Issues such as: land and water use; noise and dust; and altered transport patterns and potential resettlements in local areas, are mitigated at Norra Kärr by recycling water, working on tailings as a saleable product, and actively engaging with local communities.
Colaborating with local work forces and communicating the employment opportunities from a mining project are always great tools for building trust and ensuring active cooperation from a mine’s immediate surroundings.
Golder’s experience with mining communities from West Africa to Papua New Guinea shows that this is just as important in all corners of the world, including Sweden and the Nordics.
A sustainable REE supply chain
European experts in ERECON believe a sustainable REE supply chaing starting from a responsible mining site in Europe would be invaluable for all the European industries that depend on having a secure REE supply.
With the convoluted REE supply, European manufacturers mainly import finished goods, not REE raw materials. For every single car, computer and electrical product that requires REE products, raw materials are processed and shipped from China through a long list of suppliers. This is an added complexity that a raw materials source closer to home can help mitigate.
The major growth in REE product demand globally comes from magnets. REE magnets are essential for making computers and smartphones, and also used in aeronautics, automotive and medical industries, as well as for wind turbines. These are industries that could be self-sufficient within Europe. With an increasing emphasis on green energy across the continent and beyond, REE magnets are also a vital part of the green technology boom.
The current REE supply chain to Europe, however, contributes to environmental problems, adverse health effects in mining areas and limited recycling – among other issues. For a whole host of social, economic and environmental reasons, it is simply not sustainable. There is thus a strong rationale for building up a complete, new supply chain closer to home for European industries.
Such a sustainable supply chain would require one or more projects like Norra Kärr and Olsrerum to become significant producers and and supply the broader European market. The project sites’ well-connected infrastructure is an additional plus that enhances the sustainability of the prospective supply chain.
Located in Sweden, one of Europe’s mining powerhouses and along main transport routes, the mine sites are excellently placed for supplying Europe with REE raw materials.
The Nordics is a strong region for mining in general and REE mining should be no different. With transparent legislation, low population density and a highly educated work force, Sweden would be an excellent starting point for a sustainable, European REE supply chain.
Responsible mining and sustainable supply chains are essential for the mining industry in general and REE mining in particular – and also for European manufacturers.
That is why the Nordic REE projects are so exciting. By creating a positive counterweight to Chinese dominance of the REE market, they can show the way for mining in the Nordics – and in all of Europe.
Tasman and Golder are working closely together to make the Swedish REE venture a reality. Through engagement with local communities and by actively adapting to regulations to best facilitate social, environmental and financial success, Golder is helping the projects stand out as the most promising REE exploration sites in Europe. With ERECON and broader co-operation from European governments and industry, Norra Kärr and Olserum could lead the way for a bright future in European REE mining.
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