The obstacles that Swedish mining is experiencing they are slowing the European Union’s efforts to increase battery production and reduce reliance on Chinese manufacturers. Two years ago, the European Union highlighted the Sweden’s vast mineral resources. The soil of the Scandinavian country has approximately lmid 30 raw materials that are considered essential to meet the objective of manufacturing batteries for electric cars in Europe. However, the prospects of starting these projects are uncertain due to a extensive permitting framework and ardent local oppositionaccording to the mining companies.
Obtaining the necessary materials for the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles in Europe is one of the objectives of the ‘Horizon Europe’ strategy to develop a leading European research and innovation ecosystem for electric vehicle batteries and stationary applications. Within this scenario, obtain the raw material within the EU would ease dependency on China at a time when supply chain hurdles and geopolitical tensions drive the need to be self-sufficient.
While Sweden has a centuries-old history of metal mining and ranks as Europe’s largest iron ore producer, new projects have been hampered by logical concerns about the environment and the invasion of the territory of the indigenous Sami population in the north of the country, whose reindeer herding rights are essential to their livelihood.
“Mines always have a big impact both on the environment and on other activities such as reindeer herding and tourism,” he explains. Jonas Rudberg, spokesperson for the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. This environmental group hopes that a certain demand for raw materials can be met through mines that “do not conflict too much with other interests.” He also emphasized the importance of other ways to make the green transition, such as battery recycling and consumption reduction. “It is a bit unrealistic to imagine a future in which the entire world population drives a Tesla: the resources of the earth will not be enough.”
In today’s lithium-ion batteries, graphite is used to form the architecture of battery cell anodes, creating a structure on which lithium ions are deposited. Talga Group has been waiting for more than a decade for permits to exploit a graphite mine in Sweden that could supply enough material to feed two million electric cars a year. After some signs of progress in the negotiations, the Australian company has returned to administrative limbo in Nunasvaara South after the date to grant the environmental permit was postponed until February. This slow progress has kept the project in its prospecting stage since 2011.
“The basic problem we have is that there is this unlimited processing time,” explains Martin Phillips, Talga’s director of operations, who assures that the graphite from its mine and refinery, which run on renewable energies, would make the anode of the electric vehicle batteries are the most environmentally friendly in the world. “This situation creates a challenge for us to continue financing our company while we wait for the Swedish authorities to make a decision.”
The so-called rare earths are a set of 17 minerals (dysprosium, gadolinium or neodymium among others) essential not only for the automobile industry but also for the military, computing, mobile telephony or alternative energies. Rare earths are present in batteries and permanent magnets in electric vehicle motors.
At Norra Kärr in southern Sweden is what is considered to be the most promising rare earth mineral deposit in Europe. There, the struggle for its extraction has lasted for more than a decade. Locals fear that this mine may not only destroy surrounding farms and forests, but also contaminate nearby Lake Vättern, the source that supplies 300,000 people with drinking water.
Environmental societies wield the existence of precedents for this type of accident. In 2012, leaks from a tailings pond at the Talvivaara nickel mine in neighboring Finland spilled toxic levels of metals and uranium into nearby lakes and rivers in what is considered one of the country’s worst environmental disasters.
Industry executives say these local concerns stand in the way of broader technological changes that would help improve the environment and combat climate change. “It’s a double standard,” he explains. Robert Garcia Martinez, CEO of Eurobattery Minerals, an exploration company seeking to develop sustainable and ethical mineral mines in the European Union. “We all want to drive electric cars, but we don’t want to have a mine in our backyard – that mentality needs to change.”
Note: “Rare earths” is a confusing translation of the English term ‘rare earth metals’, since the materials to which it refers are neither earths (they are minerals) nor rare (they are not especially scarce, but they are found in small deposits and mixed with other elements).
The case of the Swedish Northvolt
Sweden’s slow progress toward a mining base capable of powering the electric transition contrasts with the speed with which battery cell maker Northvolt established an independent supply chain. The Swedish company, which sources its graphite from China, has encouraged the development of domestic mines while funding research into alternative battery technologies.
As sales of electric vehicles take off, the European Commission estimates that demand for lithium, a crucial ingredient in batteries, will increase up to 18 times by the end of the decade while the use of cobalt will increase about five times.
The Swedish Ministry of Economy is investigating how to optimize the permitting process to ensure a sustainable supply of “innovation-critical” raw materials. This work has sought the contribution of industry experts and environmental experts and hopes to be able to offer results by October of this year.
Erika Ingvald of the Swedish Geological Survey, one of the experts consulted, hopes that this work will lead to a simpler process. As for the mines awaiting a decision, she said she’s not sure when they can expect progress. “It’s like playing the lottery,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to tell.”
“The process scares away potential investors from Swedish mines, as the future is very uncertain as it cannot be guaranteed whether a permit will be obtained even if everything is being done right,” he says. Maria Sunnerexecutive director of the Swedish Association for Mines, Minerals and Metals Producers.