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The rare earth challenge in Europe: a prerequisite for green technologies

Europe is facing a dependence on third countries for the supply of essential raw materials used in green technologies. However, companies are seeking to offer European alternatives to address this challenge. This issue is at the heart of a regulation soon to be presented by the European Union (EU).


Lithium and rare earths, essential raw materials, are becoming more crucial than oil and gas as the EU strives for carbon neutrality.


But what are rare earths, and why are they indispensable to many technologies? To find out, we head to Sillamäe, a small coastal town in Estonia, housing the only rare earth separation facility in the EU.


Vasileios Tsianos, Director of Entrepreneurial Development at Neo Performance Materials, the company operating the site, explains, "Rare earths are essential raw materials for the European Union's transition to green technologies." He cites the example of neodymium and praseodymium, two rare earth elements processed at Silmet and used in the production of sintered permanent magnets based on rare earths. These magnets enable energy savings and are used in electric vehicle motors, contributing to reducing the size of batteries in some cases.


Rare earths, composed of 17 elements, are used in numerous applications, ranging from missile guidance systems to banknotes, but they are primarily intended for the production of extremely powerful magnets. Vasileios Tsianos shows us large pieces of niobium metal and explains how they are purified to a purity of 99.999999%, which is essential for aircraft reactors, rockets, and other applications.


The EU is aware of the need to develop new mines and strengthen the entire value chain of raw materials. Currently, it relies on a small number of third countries, including China, which supplies 66% of all essential raw materials and 98% of rare earths. China is also the main manufacturer of permanent magnets based on rare earths, necessary for electric vehicle motors.


To address this situation, the EU plans to introduce a regulation on critical raw materials aimed at ensuring diversified and reliable supply while adhering to high social and environmental standards. Criteria such as the material's origin and mining practices will be taken into account.


The French company Imerys has started exploring the lithium deposit discovered beneath its kaolin mine in Beauvoir, France. Alan Parte, Vice President of Lithium Projects at Imerys, emphasizes the growing importance of meeting the demand for lithium in Europe. With a projected tenfold increase in demand by 2030, it is essential to develop local extraction projects to reduce Europe's dependence on other countries.


The project conducted in Beauvoir aims to provide 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year, which could meet the needs of approximately 700,000 electric vehicles annually. This initiative demonstrates Imerys' commitment to supporting the transition to green technologies and contributing to reducing Europe's dependence on lithium imports.

Another key aspect of the EU's regulation on critical raw materials is the investment in innovative recycling processes. By promoting the recycling of raw materials, it becomes possible to reduce the need for further extraction. This approach contributes to sustainability and the preservation of natural resources.


In Estonia, Neo has planned the construction of the first magnet manufacturing plant and a research and development (R&D) center in Europe in Narva. These facilities will use separated rare earth magnetic oxides produced in Sillamäe. This project will enable the city to move away from the local oil shale industry and contribute to the transition towards cleaner energy sources.


In summary, Europe faces a major challenge in its dependence on third countries for the supply of rare earths and other essential raw materials for green technologies. However, initiatives such as the exploration of lithium deposits in France and the development of magnet manufacturing facilities in Estonia demonstrate the EU's and European companies' commitment to addressing this challenge and ensuring a sustainable and diversified supply of raw materials to support the energy transition.

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