Rare Earth Elements (REE) are a group of 17 metals used in high-tech products such as smart phones, wind turbines, and in a wide range of technologies used e.g. in the automotive, renewable energies and defense sectors. These elements are essential to help Europe build an efficient, high-tech, and competitive economy that can spur a renaissance of European industry. In this context, they can play a key role in helping the European Union achieve its industrial, climate and energy targets.
The European Union imports more than 90% of its overall need of rare earth metals from countries such as China, as European supply of such metals is insufficient to meet demand. Experts predict that the demand for these metals will continue to grow as consumer preferences shift towards high-tech and green products. To ensure supply security, the EU is trying to improve access to REE, reduce their consumption, and enhance extraction conditions across the continent.
The European Commission, under the coordination of DG GROW, has brought together experts to form a European Rare Earths Competency Network (ERECON) to explore ways of addressing the issue of supply security. ERECON is guided by a Steering Committee that has set the agenda for three Working Group meetings of REE experts. Each Working Group has a different mandate: the first focuses on the primary production of rare earths in the EU, the second looks at resource efficiency and recycling, and the third looks into trends and challenges.
The recently released ERECON 2015 Report “Strengthening the European Rare Earths Supply-Chain – Challenges and policy options” provides an updated overview of the work conducted under the ERECON framework, an also includes an analysis of a number of options for developing a diversified and sustainable REE supply chain for Europe, including:
- Substitution can help to mitigate supply pressures, however it does not offer a panacea to the rare earths challenge.
- The development of new sources of heavy rare earths outside of China and greater recycling from priority waste streams remain an ur¬gent priority for Europe.
- Recycling could provide a valuable source of rare earths for Europe, but several challenges have to be overcome for commercially viable, large-scale REE recycling.
- A case-by-case assessment of the most promising products and recycling strategies is key to overcoming bottlenecks and improving the economi¬cs of REE recycling.
- In contrast to public perception, there is also serious potential for European REE mining, particularly in Sweden and Greenland. With adequate funding and permitting, mining could begin before 2020 and secure European REE supply for decades.
The same report also provides recommendation for policy-making, such as:
- Maintaining and strengthening the European REE skills and knowledge base through research funding, science and technology education and international cooperation.
- Creating the basis for informed decision-making on REEs through a European Critical Materials Observatory.
- Making waste management REE-friendly through eco-design, incentive schemes for collecting priority waste products, and streamlining policy and waste regulation.