Mine waste finds new life as source of rare earths

Sweden, South Africa and Australia are at the forefront of a push to transform piles of mine waste and by-products into rare earths vital for the green energy revolution, hoping to substantially cut dependence on Chinese supply.

Prices of the minerals used in products from electric cars to wind turbines have been strong, and a rush to meet net-zero carbon targets is expected to further boost demand.

Europe and the U.S. are scrambling to wean themselves off rare earths from China, which account for 90% of global refined output.

Six advanced projects outside China, including one operated by Swedish iron ore miner LKAB, are now being developed to extract the materials from mining debris or by-products.

Australia’s RMIT University estimates there are 16.2 million tonnes of unexploited rare earths in 325 mineral sands deposits worldwide, while the U.S. Idaho National Laboratory estimated 100,000 tonnes of rare earths each year end up in waste from producing phosphoric acid alone.

The six projects, processing material from mineral sands, fertilizer and iron ore operations, are targeting output of over 10,000 tonnes of key elements neodymium and praseodymium (NdPr) oxide by 2027.