Belgium is a European leader in recycling, one of the few nations to meet recycling targets set out by the EU. Other than household and commercial waste, Belgian recycling plants are now helping to reduce Europe’s dependence on foreign minerals.
Rare earth metals, commonly used in the production of high-tech goods, are desperately needed for the European economy. China has a monopoly on the supply of these metals, producing up to 97% of the world's supply.
In July, China placed export restrictions on gallium and germanium metals, which are indispensable for the production of advanced chips.
China accounts for about 80% of the global production of gallium, which is used in integrated circuits, LEDs and solar panels, among others. The country also dominates the production of germanium, which is used in the production of fibre-optic cables and infrared applications.
The European Commission is concerned that restrictions on exports of certain rare earth metals will impact EU supply chains, especially within the context of growing demand for these metals for the green transition. It wants to reduce dependence on third countries such as China to 65% for imports of 18 critical resources.
Rare metals from scrap
Belgian companies want to play a role in the transition away from reliance on rare earth metals imports. Even if Europe is not well-suited for the extraction of these precious metals, it can play a role in reducing imports, notably through recycling.
One factory in Liège is one of the very few places in Europe to process metallurgy-related waste and recover the valuable rare earth metals. Hydrometal has been extracting gallium and germanium from waste for nearly 20 years. However, this is no simple process.
“It’s very precise, difficult to make profitable, very competitive, and you can’t find a lot of raw materials on the market. It really requires specific knowledge and specific chemistry. Our factory is the only one in Wallonia. Today, there are two actors in Belgium who can do it, and only two actors in Europe too,” Phillipe Henry, administrator of Hydrometal, told RTL Info.
Recent Chinese export restrictions have caused prices on the market to skyrocket. The current market price for gallium is $614 per kg, and $2,716 per kg for germanium. Faced with these rising prices, recycling has become a more profitable endeavour.
“We are contacted almost every day to be able to respond to these challenges. They will not be easy, because we have to remain competitive, answer also have to see if it can be maintained in the long-term,” Henry noted.
For now, Belgian companies are focused on the extraction of rare earth minerals from waste in the metallurgy industry. Granted, much of our tech and smartphones contain highly sought after rare earth metals, but these amounts are still too small to be profitable for major recycling companies.
The amounts contained in phones amount to just a few grams per tonne, and it is not currently viable to extract gallium, germanium, or indium from them, at least in Belgium.
While recycling plays an important role in reducing dependence on Chinese exports, Europe may soon switch to encouraging their extraction from European soil. Currently, no rare earth metals are mined in Europe.
- EU urgently needs to ramp up recycling and metal supply to reach climate goals
- Belgium starts recycling batteries and electrified vehicles
But new studies have revealed massive deposits of valuable rare earth metals, which could feasibly be extracted. In Sweden, mineral group LKAB discovered an untapped reserve of more than 10 million tonnes of oxides, the largest known deposit of its kind in Europe.
The EU will reflect on the possibility of the opening of new rare earth metal mines in Europe, but will likely still face resistance from locals due to environmental concerns. The largest potential extraction site for Europe is at Kvanefjeld in Greenland, but extraction has been prevented by indigenous groups and local residents.
The need to find new solutions is growing. Last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen predicted that “Lithium and rare earth metals will soon be more important than oil and gas.”