Will Estonia take the lead in rare earth metal mining?

A worker holds tantalum, a rare, hard, blue-gray transition metal, after the production process in the processing of lithium at Bikita Minerals mining plant in Bikita over 340 km out of Harare, Zimbabwe, 20 March 2018
© EPA-EFE/AARON UFUMELI   |   A worker holds tantalum, a rare, hard, blue-gray transition metal, after the production process in the processing of lithium at Bikita Minerals mining plant in Bikita over 340 km out of Harare, Zimbabwe, 20 March 2018

Holzstock Festival

Estonia could become a powerhouse in the strategic rare earth metals industry. Environmental concerns, outside competition, and opposition to mining are threatening that potential.

The 1987 “Phosphorite War”: opposing mining as a way to oppose the USSR

In 1987, Estonia was rocked by the so-called Phosphorite War, a mass protest against mining that not only led to a victory for environmentalists but also greatly contributed to the strengthening of the movement for national independence.

The open and successful opposition to the Communist Party’s decision to develop the North Estonian fields clearly demonstrated that resistance was possible and anticipated further steps towards restoring independence, including the Baltic chain. At that time, one of the leaders of the resistance was academician Endel Lippmaa, who, together with other Estonian scientists, argued that phosphorite mining was environmentally unsafe.

This activity initially had a political connotation. Lippmaa himself was a member of the Popular Front of Estonia and, after the restoration of independence, became a minister without portfolio in several Estonian governments. The academician subsequently admitted: "Officially, we fought against land and water pollution, but in reality, we fought against hundreds of thousands of immigrants." According to him, mining would lead to a gigantic number of Russian workers moving to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) along with their families, which would significantly change the demographic composition of the republic.

To prevent this from happening, it was necessary to prove that the possible environmental damage outweighed the benefits. By that time, Estonian scientists, despite Soviet censorship, had already managed to publish a number of articles in which they proved that the dictyonema layer lying above the phosphorites could spontaneously ignite and, in addition, was radioactive. After the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which happened a year before the Phosphorite War, these arguments began to sound with renewed vigor.

After this, the issue of developing phosphorite deposits in Estonia was not raised either at the state or private level for many years. In 2011, the largest Estonian concern, Viru Keemia Grupp, announced that it was starting research on phosphorites with the subsequent goal of starting their extraction, but the plans constantly ran into political opposition.

The potential strategic value of phosphorites: rare metals worth hundreds of billions and vital for clean energy development

In the last decade, the situation has changed, and not only Estonian politicians and private businesses but also Estonian scientists look at mining in Estonia much more favorably. Thus, academician Anto Raukas pointed out that "phosphorite worth hundreds of billions of dollars is waiting in the Estonian depths." And the point is not only that it is quite suitable for the production of fertilizers, a shortage of which arose due to the introduction of sanctions against Russia. Phosphorites also contain rare earth metals, which are declared strategic raw materials by the European Union.

The reason is simple: the range of applications for rare earth metals is very wide. They are necessary for the production of electric vehicle batteries, wind generators, radio electronics, high-tech weapons, various devices, LED lamps, and much more. In other words, in order to be able to use renewable energy sources and smart technologies, it is necessary to develop the subsoil. The demand for rare earth metals around the world is constantly growing, with China actually occupying the leading position among producers. Western countries have yet to solve the problem of dependence on it.

In Estonia, the processing of rare earth metals is carried out by NPM Silmet, located in Sillamäe, one of the largest such enterprises in Europe. The company is part of the Neo Performance Materials Group, which is headquartered in Canada. Until now, its Sillamäe plant was 99% dependent on imported raw materials, but this situation may change in the future. The head of the company, Constantine Karayannopoulos, said in June at the opening of a new Estonian plant that Europe should create the entire value chain on its territory, expressing confidence that North America will do the same.

Cooling off expectations for fast profits: the challenges of extracting rare earth metals

However, before this is done, scientists must have their say. Estonian academician and professor of geology at the University of Tartu Kalle Kirsimäe recalls that at the European Union level in recent years several studies have been carried out or are ongoing in the field of rare earth technologies, such as "SecREEts: Secure European Critical Rare Earth Elements".
In Estonia, research into rare earth metals was resumed within the framework of the RITA and RESTA programs, including projects concerning the distribution of rare earth metals and possible technologies for their extraction.

When scientists and politicians started talking about launching such programs again in Estonia a few years ago, it was accompanied by great enthusiasm. It was said that the country has the largest reserves in Europe, which promises great economic profits. Now geologists speak out more cautiously.

The results of the studies showed that the content of rare earth metals in Estonian phosphorite ore varies within very wide limits, from 100 to 1000 mg/kg, reaching in some cases more than 2000 mg/kg. Most of the rare earth metals (about 80%) are so-called light rare earth metals (La-Nd), medium rare earth metals (Sm-Dy) constitute about 15%, and the content of heavy rare earth metals (Ho-Lu) is about 5%. At the same time, the fundamental technological problem is the extraction of rare earth metals from phosphorites.

According to Kirsimäe, in the case of Estonia, there is no reason to talk separately about the extraction of rare earth metals. The main mineral is phosphorite, and rare earth metals are associated raw materials with potential added value. The academician explains that sedimentary phosphorites like Estonian carbophosphorite are not currently used to produce rare earth metals, but they are considered the most important and promising alternative, along with predominantly magmatic and hydrothermal rare earth raw materials.

"There are still no industrially applicable and economically viable solutions for the extraction of rare earth metals in parallel with the phosphoric acid production process, which would allow the co-production of both economically important products. Since there is no working technology yet, its cost is also not known with sufficient certainty," he states.

In his opinion, it would not even take years, but rather decades, to develop and bring to the industrial level a technology with which it would be possible to extract rare earth metals from Estonian phosphorite. It would be easier to establish the production of phosphoric acid needed in fertilizers since the necessary industrial technologies exist, but this, according to Kirsimäe, requires an investment of about a billion euros, and it would probably take at least five years.

Estonia’s prospects to become a rare earth metal powerhouse, threatened by environmental issues and the competition

The issue of environmental impact remains relevant. There are different methods for extracting phosphorite, from open-pit mining to underground mines. Both of these can lead to land subsidence and groundwater contamination. "The question of environmentally friendly mining cannot be answered with a yes or no," says Kirsimäe. "Any mining operations are always accompanied by environmental disruption, and the question is its possible size, the scale of the impact, and the need and effectiveness of the measures being implemented."

His colleagues from TalTech University also foresee difficulties. Thus, according to Alla Shogenova, a senior researcher at the TalTech Institute of Geology, easily accessible minerals that are located on the surface of the earth or close to it have practically been exhausted around the world over the past century. If you develop these deposits now, you will have to go deeper, and the mineral content may be lower, i.e., mining will be more expensive. At the same time, much more material will have to be recycled, there will be much more waste, and the impact on the environment will be negative, she believes.

It is also obvious that European environmental requirements are more stringent than those of the world's main suppliers of rare earth metals, so the question arises whether Estonian production will be profitable and competitive compared to Chinese production. From the point of view of scientists, while there is no working technology, it is impossible to give a possible estimate of cost and competitiveness. "Obviously, production will be more expensive, but this is the price that must be paid for reliability of supply, independence, and less impact on the environment," says academician Kirsimäe.

Estonia’s competitors may be much closer to mining their rare earth metals. Thus, at the beginning of this year, the news about the discovery of a deposit of rare earth metals in the Swedish Kiruna, the reserves of which the Swedish state-owned mining company LKAB immediately assessed as the largest in Europe, created a lot of noise. LKAB CEO Jan Mostrom then expressed the hope that the field would become "a significant building block for producing the critical raw materials that are absolutely crucial to enabling the green transition."

Estonia is yet to decide what to do with its rare earth metals deposits

Intensified research into rare earth metals is taking place all over the world; there are many reports of finds not only from Sweden but also from Finland and, most recently, from Norway, notes academician Kirsimäe. However, he points out that in all these cases, questions arise about the content of rare earth elements, the form of their occurrence, enrichment and extraction technologies, and many other factors that ultimately influence investment decisions. In most cases, these studies are at a fairly early stage, and it is too early to make any assessment of specific prospects.

As for the particular Swedish deposit, which has actually been known since the 1950s, the main mineral in it is iron ore with a high content of apatite. The content of rare earth metals in this apatite is quite comparable to that in the Estonian phosphorite, but in Sweden, according to the Estonian scientist, the content of so-called light rare earth metals (cerium, lanthanum), which are less in demand in the world, is clearly higher.

In other words, there are prospects for the Estonian mining industry, but they are not yet well defined, and although certain steps have already been taken, it is clearly premature to talk about who will take leadership in the field of rare earth metal mining. And those who venture into this business will clearly have to reckon with the phenomenon of NIMBY, although it is unlikely to take on the same proportions as the Phosphorite War of 1987.

According to Academician Kirsimäe, Estonian society will have to decide whether it is willing to tolerate the environmental and socio-political impacts of mining and production. At the same time, it is necessary to consider what will happen to the excavated territories and industry after the reserves are exhausted, what it will cost, and whether the potential income will be enough to launch this whole venture.

"It is clear that any type of mining causes opposition, and it does not make much difference whether a gravel-sand, crushed stone, or phosphorite quarry is planned. This is a question of a more general choice”, says Kalle Kirsimäe. "First of all, we as a society need to understand whether we need these mineral resources and why."

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