Can the European Union meet its decarbonisation goals by 2030? “There is no chance of winning the race unless member states work together to secure access to sustainable metals and minerals.”
Those are the words of Swedish geologist Erika Ingvald, Division Manager for Mining at the government agency Geological Survey of Sweden.
As one of Sweden’s leading experts on mineral information, she keeps a close eye on the accelerating deployment of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and energy-efficient lighting, to mention a few of Europe’s strides toward a green transformation.
The reason is simple: these advances, particularly those requiring electric storage batteries, are creating soaring demand for cobalt, lithium and graphite, all of which can be found beneath the surface of Sweden’s landscape. And they are virtually untapped.
“Sweden, Finland and Norway have very favourable geology for supplying the metals that the EU has placed on its list of critical raw materials. We know that these deposits exist but not how large they are. That’s why we need more exploration drilling projects,” Ingvald explains.
More people, smarter society
Population growth and the transition to a low-carbon economy are key drivers behind the surging demand for innovation materials as well as base metals such as copper, zinc and iron.
Europe’s shift to electric cars and trucks means that every electric BMW, Mercedes or Volvo will require four times more copper compared to vehicles with combustion engines. Besides metals for batteries, fuel cells and permanent magnets, special alloys are also needed to make electric vehicles as light and strong as possible.“Sweden has rich deposits and is one of the world’s most advanced mining nations. Our mining industry leads the way on sustainable practices and meets the strictest environmental regulations."
“The global demand for lithium was 214,000 tonnes in 2017 and about 40 per cent of output went to lithium-ion batteries. Today’s forecast shows that lithium demand will be 670,000 to 890,000 tonnes in 2025 with batteries requiring 76 to 82 per cent of lithium output.”
“All of this illustrates that our society now depends on mined metals and minerals that basically cover the entire periodic system,” Ingvald continues.
The mission: cut reliance on metals imports
Sweden is perfectly positioned to help solve a pivotal challenge in the EU. Just 5 per cent of the global output of minerals and metals are mined in Europe. The rest are imported from Asia and other continents.
Taking steps toward self-sufficiency to secure European supply chains has become a red-hot topic.
“China has large quantities of these innovation-critical metals. But our reliance on imports is too high. If trade conflicts or other issues cause disruption Europe’s economies will take a big hit. That’s why we need to secure our own metal production.”
According to Ingvald, the prospects are not just bright – sourcing these metals in Sweden stands to reason.
“Sweden has rich deposits and is one of the world’s most advanced mining nations. Our mining industry leads the way on sustainable practices and meets the strictest environmental regulations. We can also power mining activities using renewable energy which is a unique advantage for Europe,” she says.
Approximately EUR 47-85 million are invested every year in Swedish exploration projects with mining companies LKAB and Boliden accounting for the lion’s share. However, international players are seizing opportunities too and now represent 25 per cent of all exploration investments.
The Canadian company Leading Edge Materials has already developed the Woxna Graphite Mine in central Sweden to target the supply of specialty materials for lithium-ion batteries.
Others are following suit. The Australian company Talga Resources has applied for both cobalt and graphite exploration in Sweden’s northern mining district.
Turning point approaching
While Sweden’s 13 operational mines all have a world class reputation for efficiency and sustainability, public opposition to new mines has been pronounced for some years.
“Nobody wants to have a mine in their backyard for obvious reasons. But awareness around the importance of sustainable mining is growing.”
This shift in opinion, she says, began in 2015 with the Paris Agreement and grew further as electric cars started to hit the market, only to gather pace when the conditions at mines in Congo were revealed in TV documentaries.
“We need to communicate with the public and improve permitting processes. This requires political leadership. International investors are essential as they help us develop the skills required for finding and mining these new materials.”
“Sweden has vast opportunities that extend beyond lithium, cobalt and graphite,” Ingvald concludes. “We have identified deposits of vanadium in the south of Sweden which is a key metal for smart grid batteries that store solar and wind power.
“Again, the essence of the challenge is not viability but to get people on board. I think a turning point is on the horizon.”
There are currently 600 locations across Sweden where exploration permits have been issued by the Mining Inspectorate of Sweden. Approximately one third of these permits have been granted to international exploration companies.