Building the World

ENERGY: Rare Earths


Rare earth elements are needed to power smartphones, and many other technologies. Image: “Foldable smartphones” by Ka Kit Pang. Wikimedia creative commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

Smart phones are common but so-called “earths” that power these devices are rare. In fact, 17 elements termed rare earth elements or REEs supply everything from phones to electric vehicles, wind turbines, and military systems. That glowing light on your car dashboard? Rare earth chemistry in action.

“Rare earth oxides” by photographer, Peggy Greb. United States Department of Agriculture. Public Domain. Wikimedia. Included with appreciation.

Rare earths are obtained by mining, combined with extraction processing, because these oxides are not found in neat deposits but rather mixed in with other elements. REE mining is a specialty sector. China, land of the Grand Canal, is currently the world leader: both in mining and extracting, controlling 60% of the market. Recently innovations in rare earth element recycling could promote reuse and reduce mining.

“Rare earth oxides production graph” by D.J. Cordier, Haxel, et al., United States Geological Survey, 2013. Wikimedia. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Most rare earth elements used in Europe are imported. But, recently, mining company LKAB found more than one million tons of rare earth oxides in the far northern area of Kiruna. Sweden will have a ready market. However, it will be at least a decade before permitting, mining, and processing will reach European smart devices.

Sámi land and water resources are involved in rare earth mining. Image: “Three Sámi women” circa 1890. Wikimedia, public domain. Included with appreciation.

Sweden will have a nearby partner: the Northvolt battery factory is in development. Also in Sweden’s north: projects for green steel. Meanwhile, LKAB has been busy: in order to reach the deposit, the entire town of Kiruna had to be moved. There is also consideration of the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia who herd reindeer over the lands of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the Kola Peninsula of what is now Russia, these are lands to which the Sámi have indigenous rights. Sámi once transported mined ore via reindeer to deliver material to the coast for shipping. A “cultivation line” was established by law to project Sámi herding lands, but conflicts and differences remain.

“Perite” by photographer David Hospital, wikimedia creative commons 3.0. The mineral is named after Per Adolf Geijer. Image included with appreciation.

Sweden’s newly discovered deposit now has a name: Per Geijer. It’s an homage to Per Adolf Geijer (1886-1976), Swedish geologist who also has a mineral, discovered in Sweden, named after him: perite.

The rare earth element market is expected to grow, estimated to be worth $9.6 billion by 2026. In the midst of this acceleration, mining rare earth elements can affect soil and groundwater, creating acidic conditions. How can rights to rare earth elements be protected, explored, and – when mined – shared? How should land and groundwater affected by rare earth mining be restored and renewed?

Bai, Jingling, et al., “Evaluation of resource and environmental carrying capacity in rare earth mining areas in China.” Scientific Reports, Nature. 12, Article number: 6105 (2022).

He, Laura. “Sweden finds the largest rare earth deposit in Europe. It could help cut dependence on China.” 13 January CNN.

Milne, Richard. “Reasons for scepticism over Swedish rare earths find.” Financial Times.

Sommer, Nikko. “The History of Mining and Inroads to Sámiland and Their Effect on the Sámi.” University of Texas.

United States Department of Energy. “Rare Earth Recycling”

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Un

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