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Petalite, petalite or castorite is an important mineral for obtaining lithium

How we gain access to metals and minerals necessary for sustainable transition

Among the materials we need most for the sustainable transition are those that are rare or difficult to extract. And while our need for them increases, so does everyone else’s. The EU’s need for rare earth elements is projected to increase sixfold, by as early as 2030. The need for lithium will double over the same period – to twelvefold. If we cannot obtain the necessary materials – how will the electrification of transport and industry be possible? 

“We have worked for a long time to create an overview of the supply and demand for metals and minerals that are critical for the energy transition,” says Christina Jönsson, a department head at RISE. 

She explains that part of the problem is that the scarcity of several minerals is not fully apparent. Spoil tips and tailings from existing streams of base metals and iron ore include valuable and necessary raw materials – which are not extracted. Until now, it has been cheaper to buy them on the world market. 

“The price is part of the challenge. When metals and minerals are extracted in countries without proper environmental requirements and with major shortcomings in the work environment, the price can be low and thus difficult to compete with. But we need to use more of what we have already extracted from the earth. For this reason, several companies are currently investigating how separation can be done chemically and as sustainably as possible.” 

Sweden has great potential for new mining 

In Sweden and the Nordic region in particular, there is also great potential for mining a larger proportion of the rare and strategically important metals and minerals required for the energy transition. Jönsson also points out that this can be done more sustainably than elsewhere in the world, including in other EU countries: 

“We basically have the same legislation, but we have more experience in sustainable mining. There is a tradition of compliance, cooperation between authorities, and expertise, which is important in mining. In addition, the Nordic region has access to cleaner energy production to supply mining.”  

One challenge is local acceptance. In this, RISE works to develop methods for consultation with affected communities and industries, such as reindeer herding in the north. 

“The potential depends not only on how much is actually in the ground, but also the conditions for extracting it. 

We basically have the same legislation, but we have more experience in sustainable mining.

New EU legislation will simplify investment 

On May 23, 2024, the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) came into effect. The purpose of the regulation is to secure access to and reduce dependency on imported critical metals and minerals within the EU.

“A clear purpose of the Act is to ensure transparency and oversight in investments. Companies must know which regulations apply before making an investment into extraction or, for example, recycling technologies for the raw materials we need in electrification.” 

EU legislation will put pressure on Member States to ensure greater self-sufficiency with regard to the necessary raw materials. In Sweden, there is a discussion about how permit processes can be streamlined. Jönsson points out that the EU’s own legislation must also be congruent: 

“This involves the chemicals legislation REACH, the Water Framework Directive, and the new Ecodesign legislation with proposals for product passports that convey information. Properly drafted, that legislation, especially product passports, can support the objectives of the Critical Raw Materials Act, but the legislations have to talk to each other, so to speak.” 

Something else that RISE and Christina Jönsson emphasise in the legislative work is the importance of not locking onto different technologies.  

“There is a risk of this, of course, especially when we see how the US works with subsidies for investments in the green transition. In Scandinavia, we are not really accustomed to this type of government intervention in the market. So, it’s important that support systems and policies do not lock themselves into new dependencies linked to specific technology. If a new battery or solar cell technology is developed, the system must be able to quickly absorb that knowledge, even if you have invested in previous technologies. The system must be agile, which is not easy when it comes to large investments into infrastructure or lists of essential metals and minerals, which in turn determines which strategic projects the EU should invest in.” 

RISE brings together strategic operators and finds collaborations 

Within its mission, RISE works to bring together strategic operators, such as in the battery value chain. This makes it possible to identify needs for new knowledge and create spaces for new collaborations.  

“We are now working hard to find answers as to how this can be done. We know what we need, but the projects we are part of are focusing on how it should be done – not least from an ecosystem perspective. We also work with supply risks and intend to help develop risk assessment matrices. There have also been political proposals for a knowledge centre, particularly for the recycling of critical materials. In this, I believe RISE, with our extensive infrastructure and experience, can become an industrialisation testbed, create a basis for answering regulatory, sustainability, and social issues, and accelerate the steps between idea, lab, pilot, and commercialisation. This is absolutely necessary if we are to achieve the goals set by the new Act for 2030.”

ABOUT THE CRITICAL RAW MATERIALS ACT 

The Act sets these benchmarks to be achieved by 2030: the EU itself must extract at least 10 percent of the designated metals and minerals it consumes, account for 40 percent of the processing of metals and minerals and 25 percent of recycling.

The metals and minerals listed are categorised as critical or strategic. Critical metals and minerals are determined by demand, supply, and prices. Strategic metals and minerals are defined by the materials needed for the energy transition or national defence.

The Act also stipulates that no more than 65 percent of imports of a mineral or metal may come from a single third country. The EU must therefore cooperate more broadly internationally and support partners in third countries to work more environmentally and socially sustainably.

ACCESSIBLE STREAMS OF CRITICAL METALS AND MINERALS 

Access to critical metals and minerals is divided into three different types of streams: 

  1. Primary. In mining, particularly focused on one or more demanded metals and minerals. 
  2. Secondary. The metal or mineral is found in waste from other mining operations and not extracted. 
  3. Tertiary. The metal or material is found in, for example, urban environments or can be recycled from electronic waste. A very small part of the critical metals and minerals found here are recycled today. 

RISE’S RESPONSE TO CRMA 

In its response to the European Commission, RISE emphasises, among other things, that: 

  • It must be possible to use the legislation more broadly to cover the needs of new technologies other than those available today. 
  • There is a great need not only for investment and technology, but also for skills and employees in the sector. 
  • Shorter lead times are needed, but this must not jeopardise the quality of environmental and social impact assessments, and work must be carried out to promote local acceptance in affected areas and industries. 
  • The Act needs to be supplemented with measures relating to consumption. Some consumption may need to be reduced for extracted materials to be used with the greatest possible value. 

RISE emphasises that the institute can contribute expertise and skills development, life-cycle assessments and more holistic overviews of value chains, as well as its broad experience of standardisation, system processes, and analysis work.

Christina Jönsson

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Christina Jönsson

Avdelningschef

+46 70 780 60 98

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Johan Sandstedt

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Johan Sandstedt

Forsknings-och utvecklingsingenjör

+46 10 228 42 77

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