Renewable Energies

Rare earths: key to the global energy future

11 de September de 2023

  • Society is calling for green and renewable energy, declaring war on polluting gases, and Europe is taking unprecedented measures to truly protect the environment. It does so with laws, measures and concrete dates, such as a ban on the sale of combustion cars from 2035.
  • However, the technologies that make it possible to move towards this new ecological era require a large amount of minerals to manufacture them.. We are talking about rare earths: these are 17 chemical elements virtually unknown to the vast majority of the population, but essential to achieve the longed-for transition to a cleaner and greener way of life.
Europe wants to bring back mining at strategic points, it needs it to complete the energy transition.

Lithium, lanthanum, yttrium, neodymium, praseodymium or samarium are vital elements for the electronics and renewable energy industries or for manufacturing batteries for electric cars, the vehicles that will take over from combustion engines in the coming decades.. Rare earths are indispensable to build the new times to which the international community aspires, but 90% of rare earths are processed and traded by China.. And therein lies the problem.

A commercial weapon

Australia’s and the United States’ production of rare earths is among the largest on the planet, yet they remain insignificant in comparison to the mighty China, which with its more than 120,000 tonnes per year has turned rare earths into a fearsome commercial weapon.

Faced with this situation and with the aim of ending the worrying dependence on the Asian giant, Europe is no longer looking the other way. It has decided to act. Thus, in May last year, the European Commission (EC) launched the so-called REpowerEU plan, a set of measures initially designed to rapidly reduce our dependence on Russia (after the war that began in Ukraine) and also to bring forward the energy transition.

Paradoxically, the EC plan contemplates the recovery of the discredited mining industry with a very clear aim: to extract from our soil the precious technological gold, the rare earths, the 17 minerals that in the not so distant future will take the podium from the mighty oil, the black gold.

Although for decades Europe has minimised mining because of its environmental impact, reality has turned the tables to avoid the dangerous omnipresence of the Asian market.

Galicia, a treasure to be explored in Europe

So far, the European Commission has promoted more than a dozen industrial projects to exploit rare earths on European soil where there is currently only one such mine. None of these projects promoted from Brussels have a Spanish stamp, but there are rare earth deposits in our territory. And some of them are in Galicia.

The company Áridos do Mendo, in Salvaterra do Miño (Pontevedra), is dedicated to the extraction and production of aggregates. The firm operates a fluvial sand deposit to obtain aggregates for construction. In addition, however, non-invasive physical techniques are used to extract gold and monazite, from which the so-called rare earths are obtained.

To say that these 17 elements of the periodic table are key to technological products is not an exaggeration, but an overwhelming reality. Rare earths are basic to the manufacture of mobiles, tablets, wind turbines, electric cars or batteries; they are present in everything that defines our daily lives, in computers, LED and LCD screens, fibre optic cables or drones. The technological revolution would not be possible without rare earths.

Currently, 90% of rare earths are processed by China.

According to various studies, Galicia is rich in these materials and their extraction would give a strong boost to the region’s technological industry. But are there initiatives and proposals to exploit mines on Galician soil or is Áridos do Mendo a rara avis?

In reality, the Salvaterra mine is not the only possibility. SisALPilot is a European project involving Galician researchers from the Centro de Investigación y Tecnología Matemática de Galicia to produce silicon in a sustainable way, with no carbon footprint. With a budget of 14 million euros, it is funded by the EU and has a duration of four years.

Silicon is very valuable, and will become even more so as the energy transition progresses, because it is used for multiple technological components in the automotive, naval, space and photovoltaic industries… Among the companies participating in this ambitious project are Galician companies such as Fundiciones Rey and Rey Bronze in Cuntis.

In addition, the Swedish company Eurobattery Minerals has recently formalised the application for an environmental impact statement for a sizeable nickel, copper and cobalt deposit located between Santa Comba and Coristanco, minerals used in the manufacture of batteries for electric cars.

White gold is called lithium

The emergence of electric cars in the automotive industry has not only altered the way of life of a world that wants to be socially responsible. Manufacturing processes are undergoing constant change and raw materials are a good example of this silent revolution.

Lithium is one of those raw materials so desired by the automotive industry because it is indispensable for making batteries for electric cars, but it is also scarce. There is not enough lithium to meet demand and the deposits are a pr

In this sense, many experts point to Portugal as a country rich in lithium and there is already a project for its extraction, called Mina do Barroso, in the north of the country, about 145 km northeast of Porto.

Numerous studies have shown that Galicia has nothing to envy its neighbouring country because its geological potential is immense. “It has one of the most interesting deposits in southern Europe,” say the Official Association of Geologists (ICOG).). The key for all potential fields will be to achieve sustainable exploitation, in line with