Do we need Sweden’s new mineral find?
ON THE EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States
Ecology vs. economy
Kiruna in northern Sweden is a mining town. Since 1898, iron ore has been extracted to the point that its moniker is the largest underground mine in the world for this mineral. With parts of the town subsiding dangerously due to the digging, residents are moving rather than stopping mining.
Now, near Kiruna, the largest known European deposit of rare earth metals has been discovered. Environmental concerns are clear: surface disruption from mining and over a wider swath because of transportation to and from the mine along with radioactivity and toxicity in the mined materials and waste products.
Social implications emerge. How will reindeer herding and other land-based livelihoods be affected? Could the deposit help Europe and the world reduce dependence on China, which currently provides most rare earth minerals and has most known deposits? Will China show renewed interest in its Polar Silk Road and Arctic railway?
Since extraction from the new deposit cannot start for at least a decade, how much really changes? We use the rare earth minerals daily in technologies, yet technology changes swiftly. So why exactly do we need these ores?
The rare earth elements comprise a group of 17: scandium, yttrium, and the 15 lanthanides appearing as numbers 57-71 in the periodic table of the elements. They are common around the world, making the “rare” adjective a misnomer. Mining them is not always straightforward, so large deposits are preferred.
They are essential for our electronics. Every computer, including our smartphones, use them. They help information speed along fiberoptics.
Euro banknotes use the rare earth metal europium as an anti-counterfeit measure while gadolinium controls reactions in some nuclear power plants. Numerous military systems require them for night-vision equipment and armor. Many devices with magnets rely on them.
Magnets are especially important looking to the future. Electricity supplies beyond fossil fuels have typically used rare earth metals, such as wind turbines and electric vehicles, although some are now being developed with substitutes. Perhaps it is not too wacky to envision our phones, flat-screen televisions, computer hard drives, and cameras also using materials other than rare earth metals.
Where does this leave other everyday uses, from rechargeable batteries to earbuds and from light bulbs to cordless tools? More widespread minerals might replace them. It is not clear that mining and processing will necessarily be easier, cheaper, or cleaner. Investigations continue into even more alternatives.
How long will we rely on specific technologies? It is hard to imagine a world without some form of light bulb or sound speaker using rare earth metals, yet it used to be hard to imagine a world without some form of CD or DVD, which require the rare earth metals, too. We certainly need light and sound; how that is achieved can be flexible.
Our standards for mining change with time. When Kiruna was founded, environmental and social standards were much laxer. Sweden today, a country known for higher environmental and social standards than most others, has no compunction about moving part of a town in order to continue mining.
In the future, might we be more inclined to leave the Earth’s resources in the Earth? This impetus might gain traction as we improve our interest and techniques in diving through the huge mounds of electronic waste for extracting and reusing the rare earth minerals in older machines.
Or perhaps our insatiable appetite for electronics and handheld technologies will drive ever-newer techniques for pulling and using rare earth minerals from our planet, notably from the deep sea. This is followed by plunder aimed at our moon, asteroids, and other planets.
Do we need Sweden’s new mineral find? Perhaps not “need,” but we can certainly find ways to use it.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.