Business Planet heads to Greece to find out what Europe is doing to secure the finite resources that will be critical for high-tech and the renewable energy revolution.
Rare earth metals and other key minerals are transforming the world. They are the key ingredients for the magnets, motors and batteries, used in high-growth sectors like electric car and wind turbine production.
In search of the core ores
Greek SME Seismotech is in the business of finding these key elements. Providing a range of exploration services, it helps mining companies prospect in a more sustainable way by enabling them to find minerals without having to dig up the ground - thus reducing the environmental damage often caused by mining.
“The technology that we apply is passive seismic, which is based on recording and analysis of naturally occurring seismic signals, such as earthquakes or ambient seismic noise. In that sense, it permits the mapping out of mineral resources in a totally environmentally friendly manner,” explains Seismotech's CEO Nikos Martakis.
Seismotech is a member of Smart Exploration, an EU funded project that aims to develop more cost-effective and sustainable solutions within the mining industry.
Nikos says the project helped Seismotech move into the mining sector: "Smart Exploration provided us with the opportunity to focus on research and innovation. In this context, we transferred our expertise from oil and gas to the mining exploration industry. Moreover, we had a chance to collaborate, exchange ideas and knowledge with academia and industry throughout Europe.”
Supporting firms like Seismotech fits into a wider European strategy. This year 30 rare earths and key elements were listed as critical for Europe’s economy. For instance, it’s estimated the EU will need 18 times more lithium by 2030 for batteries and energy storage. That figure is forecast to rise 60 times more by 2050.
The problem for Europe is many of these minerals are found in other countries – notably China. But a new EU critical raw material action plan seeks to cut that dependency by diversifying supply while also significantly strengthening domestic sourcing, processing and recycling.
“Rare earths are mainly imported from China, and therefore we have to find a strategy in order to cut the reliance from this country. For this reason, the European Union has developed a strategy, which includes two steps. The first step is to exploit our own domestic resources and the second is to diversify our supply for these materials,” says Professor Ioannis Paspaliaris, from the Technical University of Athens.
To breathe new life into Europe’s metal and mining sector and bring those working in the industry closer together, the EU has also set up a body called the European Raw Materials Alliance.
Business Planet spoke to Peter Handley from the European Commission to find out more about what the EU is doing to secure these vital resources.
Why are these critical raw materials so important for Europe?
"We have identified 30 raw materials as critical for Europe because they are extremely important for our economy and the supply risk is high. For example, almost 100% of the rare earths needed for the magnets in electric cars or wind turbines come from one source, China."
How will the latest EU strategy meet the current challenge and reduce Europe’s dependency on third countries?
"The recent EU strategy on critical raw materials sets out ten actions to boost Europe’s access to sustainable raw materials. The main idea is to reduce risk by diversifying: spreading our sourcing among a larger number of third countries; doing more with the raw materials we have in Europe, and ramping up the recovery of raw materials already in the economy, the so-called ‘urban mine’."
Bolstering supply security and improving how these materials are sourced and recycled will require investment. How do you hope to achieve this?
"We want to attract investment into sustainable raw material projects, like building up Europe’s rare earth and magnet value chains or recovering valuable materials from mining waste. A lot of the funding should come from the private sector. EU and national funds can help to de-risk strategic projects and leverage private funding. By the end of 2021, our sustainable financing work will tell investors what kinds of raw material projects are good for the climate and for the environment."
Why is Europe only now moving to secure these vital materials?
"At the moment there is a global race for the raw materials that will be needed for clean technologies. Europe runs the risk of missing the boat so we need to act faster and in a much more joined up way than we have in the past, otherwise we will not get the raw materials that we need to drive our green and digital transition - but we are confident it can be done."
Securing a sustainable supply of raw materials is crucial to the European Union's industry and wider economy. EU funding for innovative projects in the raw materials sector is available under the Horizon 2020 programme.
In September 2020 the Commission presented an Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials and the 2020 List of Critical Raw Materials.
The Commission also launched the European Raw Materials Alliance to bring together relevant stakeholders. The alliance will focus on the most pressing needs facing Europe, namely to increase EU resilience in the rare earth and magnet value chains which are vital for Europe's industrial ecosystems.
The measures aim to promote the EU’s transition to a green and digital economy, and increase Europe's resilience in key technologies needed for such transition.