Rare Earth Elements - can they be produced sustainably and is Greenland a solution?
Updated: 6 days ago
Rare Earth Elements (REE) is a name given to a group of 17 metallic elements. Many of these are critical for the global energy transition to electrification including for use in motors for electric vehicles and in wind turbines.
Rare earths are rare in name only – the challenge is these elements do not occur in concentrated deposits and are often contained with other elements, metals, and compounds -making extraction and separation often difficult and expensive.
The graphic from Visual Capitalist below shows the global quantified deposits of REE with Russia, China and Brazil having the largest deposits. China is the dominant global player in REE by a long shot – accounting for 58% of global REE mining (2020), 90% of global purification and 90% of global permanent magnet production.
Southwest Greenland is very promising for high potential of rare earth elements and other speciality minerals such as tantalum, niobium, thorium uranium and it is expected additional resources will quantified for Greenland in coming years. Global interest in Greenland as a home for rare earths has increased markedly in the past few years. A Financial Times article in 2019 mentioned Greenland could possibly hold 38.5m tonnes of rare earth oxides of a global reserves of 120m tonnes or 32% of global reserves.
Neodymium, Praseodymium, dysprosium, and terbium are the main REE used in production of permanent magnets required in electric vehicles and wind turbines. Yttrium and scandium are used for certain types of hydrogen electrolysers. Europium, terbium, and yttrium are used in energy efficient fluorescent lighting.
In 2021 global production of REE was estimated at 280,000 tonnes of REE oxide equivalent – a 17% increase from 2020 production. About 29-35% of all REEs are used for permanent magnets – with less than 15% of this being used for EVs.
According to SAE International, the mass of REE in an EV with a nickel metal hydride battery is around 4.5kg, whilst an EV with a lithium-ion battery contains around 1kg of REE.
95% of electric vehicles use magnets containing REE in the traction motors. It has been reported the global demand will grow from 5,000 tonnes in 2019 to up to 70,000 tonnes per annum by 2030.
A wind turbine uses between 400kg and 1,000kg of REE for permanent magnets. The global demand for REE is expected to be driven by the increase in wind power for electrification with some estimates it will supply as much as 20% of the world’s electricity by 2030.
There is a global scramble to develop sustainable REE supply chains independent of China. In Europe the situation is particularly concerning – 16,000 tonnes of rare earth permanent magnets are exported from China to Europe every year – representing 98% of the EU market. Currently only 1% of REE are recycled in Europe.
As Jakob Kullik noted in a 2019 white paper for the German Academy for Security Policy “there is not a single mine in the EU producing rare earths for Europe’s industry”. This situation has not changed. Mr. Kullik also noted with remarkable prescience “NATO is almost 100% dependent on rare earths from China”.
A study by KU Leuven University in Belgium in 2022 found that Europe will require 35 times more lithium and seven times the amount rare earth metals compared to 2022 usage to meet the EU green deal goal of climate neutrality by 2050.
In her 2022 State of the Union Speech, EU Commission President Von der Leyen announced the creation of a European Critical Raw Materials (CRM) Act in 2023 and said, “lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas” and “we will identify strategic projects all along the supply chain, from extraction to refining, from processing to recycling”.
The EU CRM Act (draft expected in March 2023) is expected to address issues such as which CRMs are considered strategic, develop a network of European raw material agencies, create
A significant interest in Europe is how to ensure REE mining and extraction can be as “green” as possible. The current REE extraction and purification methods generally use harsh chemicals (phosphoric acids) are labour intensive and time consuming.
New technologies are developing such as electrokinetic mining and all-aqueous, protein-based method (lanmodulin) are being developed which offer hope for a greener, lower carbon intensive recovery process.
An Australian team at Deakin University is working on “Electrodeposition” to recover rare earth elements. They have designed an environmentally friendly composition based on ionic liquids (salt-based). They have successfully recovered Neodymium using this process. This process is highly stable and can be conducted without using a controlled atmosphere. The goal of the process is to be able to recover REE’s easily without the generation of toxic and harmful waste.
For global investors there are several listed Australian, Canadian, and global REE small-mid cap companies in the REE sector.
Here in Europe, we have recently commenced work with Eclipse Metals Ltd (ASX: EPM; FSE: 9EU) which has acquired full ownership of the Ivittuut and Grønnedal projects in Southwest Greenland. This was once the world’ largest cryolite mine. Mine working have been founds to contain fluorite, quartz and rare earth minerals and base oxides.
A maiden drilling program completed in late 2022 returned encouraging samples of praseodymium (Pr) and neodymium (Nd). The preliminary results indicate the Grønnedal carbonatite project could be significant on a global basis with respect to its Pr and Nd content. Further essay results are expected in early 2023.
A recent video explaining how the Greenland resource could benefit Europe is below