The delicate equation of rare earths



Rare earths are a group of 17 minerals with specific electromagnetic properties that play a key role in a wide range of technologies, including smartphones, wind turbines, and rechargeable batteries. These strategic materials are at the heart of innovation, essential to many electronic systems, and required for the production of powerful magnets used in electric engines.

Global demand for rare earths is increasing rapidly due to the rapid expansion of the digital economy. This resource paradox lies in the fact that the elements needed for green technology themselves contribute to negative environmental impacts while being extracted and refined. To date, no effective alternatives have been found.

Despite their name, these resources are not inherently “rare.” Some are abundant in the Earth’s crust. However, its rarity lies in the complex process of extraction and purification. First, these elements are usually found in very low concentrations in ores, making the extraction process expensive and technically complex. For example, to obtain one kilogram of lutetium, an average of 1,200 tons of rock must be crushed.

Second, various rare earth elements are chemically similar, making separation difficult, requiring advanced techniques, and contaminating chemicals.

Finally, the thorium or radioactive uranium content raises further environmental concerns. In China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, radiation levels measured in a village near the Baotou mine were 32 times the normal level, even exceeding the 14 times normal level observed at Chernobyl, according to Géo magazine. . For the same reason, the La Rochelle rare earth refinery, which accounted for 50% of the world market in the 1980s, was transferred to China.

China’s monopoly and technology war

Until the 1980s, the United States dominated the rare earth market. China has reversed this trend with cheaper labor, larger reserves, and looser environmental regulations. Since 1995, China has had a near monopoly on the extraction and refining of rare earths, becoming one of the world’s leading United States Geological Survey, its reserves are the largest in the world at 44 million tons, accounting for more than a third (37%) of proven reserves. Dependence on China for these resources, which accounts for about 60% of the world’s extraction market and an even higher share (up to 90%) of refining, is a cause for concern. The European Commission reported that 98% of rare earths used within the EU are imported from China.

Faced with this growing dependence, Western countries are looking for new sources of information. Since the late 2010s, mining and refining projects have sprung up in Australia and Canada. In 2013, the United States reopened the Mountain Pass open pit mine in California. The mine was closed in 1998 after thousands of liters of radioactive water were spilled. Rare earths are also a major issue in the technology and trade wars between the United States and China.

In June 2023, the Netherlands, under pressure from the United States, restricted exports of key technologies involved in microchip manufacturing. In response, on July 3, the China Commercial and Customs Administration announced that starting August 1, export visas will be required for the export of gallium and germanium, two rare earths that are strategically important for electronic chips. . National Security and Interests.”

The EU needs resilience

of Critical raw materials law The paper, published on March 16, 2023, substantiated the European Union’s goal of strengthening resilience in rare earths. The law set ambitious targets to increase the European Union’s contribution to these substances, allocating 10% for extraction, 40% for processing and 15% for recycling. The proposal also recommends a quick and simplified permitting process specific to strategic mining projects, handled through a single window nationwide.

The regulation suggests measures to diversify imports of critical raw materials so that no more than 65% of each strategic raw material is imported from a single third country, in an effort to avoid over-reliance on China. be.

What is the solution?

In January 2023, the Swedish organization LKAB announced that it had discovered more than 1 million tons of reserves, equivalent to 1% of the world’s proven reserves. However, LKAB will have to overcome considerable challenges to make its exploitation acceptable to society. A similar Nora Carr deposit is also located in Sweden, which remained frozen from 2017 until 2020 for environmental reasons, and although research has resumed, the question of whether to develop it remains open. . In any case, mining cannot begin until after the 10 to 15 years required to open and put the mine into service.

When it comes to recycling, only 1% of rare earths are currently recycled, as they exist in small amounts and are difficult to separate from other metals. Achieving the ambitious 15% target faces many obstacles, from long product lifetimes to complex collection processes, not to mention the incredible pace of growth of the rare earths market and the technologies that require it. Masu.

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