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"It's very good news"

tagesschau.de: Mr. Gutzmer, please help us to classify the find: Up to a million tons of rare earths are said to be in the ground in Per Geijer. How much is that compared to other deposits?

Jens Gutzmer: That is quite significant. The second largest deposit we have in Europe is also in Sweden, Norra Karr. It contains around 200,000 tons of rare earths in total, i.e. a fifth of what the mining group LKAB has now reported about the new Per Geijer deposit. However, with higher concentrations in the ore.

Per Geijer is talking about concentrations of just under 0.2 percent by weight of all rare earths per ton of ore. Typical deposits that are already being produced in today have well over one percent by weight – i.e. at least five times as much rare earths per ton of ore.

tagesschau.de: And how is this amount of one million tons to be classified in an international comparison?

Gutzmer: There is, for example, the Mountain Pass deposit in the USA, which currently produces almost 20 percent of world production. It contains a total of 1.4 million tons of rare earth oxides, but the average concentration of rare earths there is around 3.8 percent by weight. A second important deposit in the western world, Mount Weld in Australia, contains a total of around three million tons of rare earths, here even with an average concentration of eight percent by weight rare earths.

tagesschau.de: And in China?

Gutzmer: About 60 percent of all rare earths still come from China. You have to differentiate a bit there – on the one hand there is a deposit that is really exceptionally large: Bayan Obo at times provided more than 40 percent of the world's rare earth production. It is actually an iron ore mine, the iron ores contain three to five percent by weight of rare earths that can be extracted.

The remaining deposits that are being mined in China are of a similar size in terms of tonnage for the rare earths, as we are now hearing here from LKAB.

"Rare earths can hardly be replaced at all"

tagesschau.de: Can you explain to a non-geologist or non-engineer what kind of metals rare earths are about?

Gutzmer: The rare earths are a group of 17 elements in the chemical periodic table that all have very similar chemical properties. Therefore, they always occur together, so there is no rare earth that occurs in isolation in the earth's crust. They occur in different concentrations to each other, but you can always consider them as a closed group.

The rare earths are one of the key groups of high-tech metals in the public eye because they are used, for example, in the production of phosphors for our LED lamps or high-quality permanent magnets. They are essential for these products and can hardly be replaced at all.

tagesschau.de: Approximately how much is needed worldwide each year?

Gutzmer: Annual production worldwide is currently around 250,000 tons of all rare earths. However, global production continues to increase every year, by more than ten percent between 2021 and 2022.

"Rare earths are extracted as a by-product"

tagesschau.de: Back to Sweden – how will the dismantling work?

Gutzmer: The new deposit, Per Geijer, is practically in the immediate vicinity of Europe's largest iron ore mine, Kiruna, which LKAB has been mining for more than 100 years.

Per Geijer contains over 500 million tons of declared resources of iron ore. This ore contains about 50% by weight iron, 5% by weight phosphate and – closely related to the phosphate – about 0.2% by weight rare earths.

So don't be mistaken here: The ore body is mined for its iron content – the rare earths and the phosphate are then obtained very cheaply, almost free of charge, one could say, as a by-product and removed and refined during the processing of the iron ore.

tagesschau.de: LKAB has announced that it will be years before the demand starts. Why?

Gutzmer: Because LKAB had permission to explore the Per Geijer deposit, but that doesn't mean that you can build a mine. In order to be able to set up a mine, very intensive investigations must first be carried out, for example into the economics and environmental impact. It has to be planned exactly where spoil heaps can go, where residues from processing can be stored, what compensation measures the company has to take and so on. That takes many years.

The company itself talks about ten to 15 years before mining can start. I think that's absolutely realistic.

"With the right technology, you could already mine rare earths"

tagesschau.de: What does this find mean for Europe and for the local industry and economy?

Gutzmer: That is a very interesting question. Because at least a decade will pass before the demand from Per Geijer, one should first take care of a timely European supply of rare earths.

An obvious alternative is the iron ores from the Kiruna mine right next door. It produces many millions of tons of iron ores per year, which are very similar to those from the Per Geijer deposit. The ores also contain rare earth-bearing phosphates. However, these rare earths are not separated today, but remain in the mining residues.

With the right technology, it has already been possible to extract rare earths and phosphate from the residues. If this were possible, it would make a difference for the rare earth supply in Europe as early as next year. That the appropriate technology needs to be developed is therefore perhaps the information that is simply missing from LKAB's press release.

tagesschau.de: So it would be good news for the European industry because it has so far been very dependent on China?

Gutzmer: It's very good news, definitely. It is likely that LKAB will go two ways: develop the new iron ore deposit, with phosphate and rare earths as by-products. And also to use the already existing and very similar Kiruna deposit to separate rare earths from the mining residues there.

tagesschau.de: Are more such finds conceivable in the near future?

Gutzmer: Rare earths are not rare and there is actually enough potential in Europe. Norra Karr in southern Sweden, for example, is a fantastic deposit that is also very rich in heavy rare earths, which are particularly supply-critical. And there are other deposits in Europe. But so far no investor has been found for these deposits. LKAB, on the other hand, is a large mining company that has it in its own hands to separate the rare earths from its own iron ores. This would of course mean a crazy leap for Europe's security of supply.

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