Contacts Mytilineos – Commission for gallium production in Crete
Rare earths are detected in the coastal and underwater environment between Halkidiki and Alexandroupolis, mainly at the mouths of the rivers Strymonas, Nestos and Evros. Photo SHUTTERSTOCK
Mytilineos can provide a strategic advantage in the European semiconductor, optical fiber and photovoltaic manufacturing market under certain conditions. The European Commission approached Mytilineos Energy & Metals and asked it to investigate the production of gallium as a by-product at its refinery that converts bauxite into alumina, the raw material for aluminium, in Agios Nikolaos, Crete.
“We are in discussions with the European Commission to to achieve the best and fastest result”, reveals Evangelos Mytilineos, president of Eurometaux, the Pan-European Union of Non-Ferrous Metal Industries, and president of Mytilineos, speaking to “K”.
This development comes after the recent announcement of China's plans to limit exports of gallium and germanium. The E.U. it sources 70% of its gallium and 45% of its germanium from China, and there are few companies outside of China capable of producing high-purity metals used in the manufacture of semiconductors, photovoltaics and optical fibers. However, the plight of the European metals industry in recent years makes it excruciatingly difficult to invest the tens of millions of euros needed to produce gallium without government support to cope with high energy costs and inflation.
“A few months ago the European Commission tabled its proposal for the Critical Raw Materials Directive, to help the European mining and processing industry of ores and metals, which itself has a deficit and is totally dependent on imports, mainly from China and Russia”, points out Evangelos Mytileneos.
The development comes after China's recent announcement to restrict exports of gallium and germanium. However, “to the great surprise of all interested parties, as well as the governments of the member states, in the list of these materials issued by the Commission, aluminum, alumina and zinc were not present, although these are definitely among the critical/strategic materials for the green transition, according to the Commission's own methodology,” he adds. “After the major objections raised by Eurometaux, the European Aluminum Association, etc., the Council of Ministers “corrected” the Commission's mistake and reinstated these three critical materials on the CRM list.” However, continues Evangelos Mytilineos, “not even ten days passed and suddenly China banned the export of gallium and germanium, materials necessary for the manufacture of semiconductors”.
Europe, as mentioned above, is heavily dependent on Chinese exports for gallium (70%) and germanium (45%). However, of these two rare raw materials, gallium is found by processing bauxite into alumina and germanium by processing zinc ores into metal.
According to the president of Eurometaux and president of Mytilineos, “with regard to gallium, the Commission immediately addressed the alumina production companies, of which Aluminum of Greece is the only plant in Europe that is currently working at 100% production, to ascertain the possibility to produce as much gallium as we can”. “Because we have ready studies and full gallium production capability, with the necessary investments of course, we are in discussions with the European Commission to achieve the best and fastest result”, he explains to “K”.
The Minister of Environment and Energy, Thodoros Skylakakis, attending the informal Council of Ministers of Environment and Energy, held on Wednesday in Valladolid, Spain, stated that “Greece supports the initiative of the E.U. for strategic autonomy and can contribute, by extracting critical raw materials and rare earths that exist in its subsoil, to this effort”.
He also underlined that “Greece is one of the largest producers of bauxite in the EU, while the country's potential in antimony is important, as well as in elements used for the production of batteries, such as nickel, cobalt and manganese, and that the mining of rare earths and critical strategic metals could be facilitated by the REPowerEU project, which is designed to also contribute to additional investment in the battery sector.
Significant evidence of rare earths of land in the country
As the Commission's approach to Aluminum of Greece reveals, Greece is among the European countries that can support a plan to make the Old Continent independent of China in terms of supply in rare earths and critical materials.
The geology of Greece presents acid igneous rocks similar to those of N. Europe, hosting the well-known Norra Kärr deposits of Sweden, Kvanefjeld and Kringlerne of Greenland, and Fen of Norway and Finland, which alone are thought to cover the needs of Europe in the coming decades, Dr. Konstantinos Laskaridis, head of the Directorate of Mineral Resources and Mining of the Hellenic Geological & of Mineral Research (EAGME).
There are significant indications of the existence of rare earths mainly in areas of N. Greece, from the research carried out by IGME (now EAGME) in collaboration with ELKETHE. Rare earths, and indeed in high content, are detected in the coastal and underwater environment between Halkidiki and Alexandroupolis, mainly at the mouths of the rivers Strymonas, Nestos and Evros. Sedimentological investigations and analyzes of samples carried out by the IGME in these areas were quite encouraging, with an average content of rare earths of 1.17%, but unfortunately with a considerable content of thorium (radioactive element). The existence of radioactive elements and heavy metals in the rare earths is the main reason why in Europe, although deposits have been found, they have not been exploited until today, emphasizes Mr. Laskaridis. Rare earths are also found in the Laterites of Lokris and Vrontero of Florina, in the Bauxites of the Parnassos – Gionas Zone, in the alkaline igneous rocks of Fanos in Samothrace and in the Phosphorites in Western Greece.
Of the rare earth mineral deposits studied in Greece, according to Mr. Laskaridis, only the black sands from the area of Loutra Eleftheri – Nea Peramos are of economic interest. However, due to its location (in an area with heavy tourist traffic) any attempt at development will create problems.
“Further comprehensive oreological research with geophysical and chemical analyzes and some drilling is needed to see if the indications are confirmed”, emphasizes Mr. Laskaridis. According to him, “at least 10 years will pass from the moment a full research program is started until the exploitation of the deposit, a period that can be reduced to just two to three years with the new regulations promoted by the EU.” ».
Greece's rare earths have attracted China's interest in the past. Nine years ago, officials from the Chinese Geological Survey and the metallurgical Minmettals had visited Athens and had meetings with the leadership of the Ministry of Environment, IGME and Aluminum of Greece and expressed their willingness to invest. However, such investments, in addition to taking years to pay off, often face backlash from those opposed to mining.
Indicative are the reactions in Sweden, where a deposit of rare earths was discovered in January. “The alpha and omega in the exploitation of all these deposits is to get closer to society. Explain that you cannot have electricity from green technologies without mineral raw materials. If there is no mining for research, there will be no green transition. The increase in demand is exponential. When lithium is needed for the batteries in electric cars and today it is for example 1,000, while in 10 years there should be 1 million, with simple mathematics the demand cannot be met without mining raw materials”, noted Mr. Laskaridis .
Gallium and germanium are essential for the manufacture of semiconductors.
The dependence of European industry on China
On July 3, China announced restrictions on exports of gallium and germanium, which are essential for the manufacture of semiconductors, and from next month they will be subject to export restrictions. Beijing's decision sounded the alarm, as the E.U. it sources 71% of its gallium needs from China and 45% of its germanium.
The announcement was China's response to the EU's new strategy. to control high-tech exports and in the Netherlands' decision to follow Japan and the US in imposing restrictions on overseas sales of semiconductor manufacturing equipment.
“China's move is a powerful reminder of who has the upper hand in this game,” said Bruegel researcher Simone Tagliapietra. “The harsh reality is that it will take at least a decade for the West to become independent from China's metals supply chains, so this is really an asymmetric dependence,” he added, according to Bloomberg.
Already the EU learned a hard lesson last year when, after the invasion of Ukraine, it rushed to diversify its oil and gas imports, while inflation soared and there were fears of the collapse of entire industries. This situation has even split the bloc, as member states have long been unable to agree on the stance they should take towards Russia.
The same dynamic is now emerging with regard to the EU's stance. against China, as some countries refuse to risk their trade relations with the world's second largest economy. Besides, the benefits of the relationship for the E.U. it is also huge in terms of exports. For example, China is a large market for the European automotive, pharmaceutical and machinery sector. In fact, the big German car manufacturers maintain dozens of factories in China.
The US, however, has put strong pressure on Europe to toughen its stance on Beijing, while Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has argued that the bloc should be independent of China, without completely cutting off ties with each other. ties. In this context, the E.E. launched a raw materials program in March to facilitate financing and licensing of new mining and refining projects, as well as build strong trade partnerships within the bloc. At the same time, E.E. and the US are considering the scenario of cooperation on purchases and investments of base metals.
“Europe today is highly dependent on China for a range of clean technologies and key components, so an escalation of these tensions may make making Europe's green transition more difficult”, said Taliapietra referring to the Green Deal.
Giraia Epirus is currently 100% dependent on foreign suppliers for 14 of the 27 critical raw materials and 98% for the rare earths from only one supplier, China. For the USA this figure is 80%. It should be noted that for the Biden administration, the US's independence from China has been characterized as of utmost importance for national security.
China controls 50% of the world's reserves and in combination with very low wages and the minimal environmental restrictions managed to drive out of the market large producers, such as Brazil, India, the USA and South Africa.