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Rare earth minerals deposit found in Sweden

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Sweden has announced an unusual discovery - a deposit of rare earth elements. Those minerals can be used in a number of daily items, from phones to TVs and computers to batteries. And the specific metals found in Sweden are important to making electric vehicles and wind turbines. Here to talk us through the significance of this is Planet Money's Paddy Hirsch. Hey there.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: Hello.

SUMMERS: So how big of a deal is this discovery? And tell us why.

HIRSCH: Well, it's a pretty big deal for Sweden. And it's a pretty big deal for the West, really, because the rare earths production and sort of generation machine is really dominated by China, which sort of generates or produces 80% of the world's rare earths, which are very important because they're used in all sorts of technology, including military technology. So having a large production facility in Sweden, that is to say a mine and a production facility, which they're talking about, is a very big deal for the West.

SUMMERS: So the mining company that found this deposit said that this is the largest one in Europe. Do you know which elements they found and what significance this holds for the global market?

HIRSCH: Well, we're not exactly sure what elements they have found yet. What they have said is that they've - they will be producing at least two elements. One is called neodymium, and the other is called praseodymium. And both of those elements are used for the production of magnets, very, very strong magnets, magnets that can be used at very, very high temperatures. And these will be used in things like electric vehicles, wind turbines, any kind of application where the temperatures get up to really, really high levels that most sort of regular magnets can't handle. So it's going to be very, very important for those kind of green technologies. And, of course, that's where we're going to see a lot of advance in, as for economically, in the next 10 to 20 years. So it's very, very important for those Western economies.

SUMMERS: You mentioned earlier that China dominates this market. So I guess I'm curious what kind of economic or - I don't know - political implications this discovery could have.

HIRSCH: Well, I mean, all sorts of implications. I mean, we have seen in the last 10 years that the U.S. in particular has been very, very worried about the fact that China has such a lock hold on the production of rare earths. And I just - I mentioned the defense issues. And we used to have a defense company in the United States that produced certain technologies using rare earths. And we shipped that wholesale to China. So now China actually produces elements that go into some of our own missile technology. And clearly that's strategically not a smart thing to happen.

So the U.S. has been looking for a way - in fact, the West has been looking for a way generally to find - to tilt the balance away from China. And the U.S. is thinking about opening or working on opening a mine in the United States. We're looking at parts of Asia and Australia. So this find in Sweden is a very big deal for the West and for Western nations and NATO, who now have to worry slightly less about the fact that that balance of production of rare earths that are so strategically important has in the past been tilted towards China.

SUMMERS: Got about 30 seconds left here. Getting these elements out of the ground and to the point where they're usable can be harmful to the environment, right? So is that likely to happen?

HIRSCH: Well, Sweden has talked about having a state-of-the-art facility that will not just pull those elements out of the ores that they take out of the ground but also recycle and use the sort of the side effects, if you like - the off-throw from these for all sorts of other applications. So if they're successful in doing that, it'll be a much greener, much cleaner type of system than they have in China right now, which will be great for the environment.

SUMMERS: Paddy Hirsch of NPR's Planet Money. Thanks.

HIRSCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT (FEAT. KENDRICK LAMAR)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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