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Estonia’s unique position in raw materials supply chain touted at GreenEST Summit

TalTech's Rutt Hints speaks during the GreenEST Summit. Photo credit: Tehnopol
TalTech's Rutt Hints speaks during the GreenEST Summit. Photo credit: Tehnopol

In spite of its diminutive geographic size and relatively small population, Estonia is actually poised to play a distinct role in the European rare earth element supply chain in the future as the region continues to transition to green technologies.

Rutt Hints, head of mineral resources and applied geology at Tallinn University of Technology, discussed Estonia’s opportunities in raw materials at the GreenEST Summit, an annual greentech confab held at the tail of October where European public and private sector experts, cleantech companies, and investors gather to talk. During her presentation, she also touched on the issues of attracting new talent to the sector.

According to Hints, the material needs for green technologies are rising, and the European supply chain must cover these needs. In the case of Estonia, state mineral extraction activities have been focused around oil shale for a century and efforts focused on extracting other raw materials to support the move to green technologies are small, not well funded, and do not benefit from wide public awareness of the importance of raw materials and supply chains.

Nevertheless, Estonia has some potential in the raw materials market, Hints said, noting the presence of phosphates and rare earth elements like vanadium that are “critical” for greentech. She noted that global activities to support the transition to green technologies is still nascent, and therefore Estonia still is in a good position to explore and exploit its own untapped deposits.

“We have to remember that the scaling up of green technologies has only just started,” Hints said. “We also definitely have to recognize that there will be a supply crisis in the future, and that such materials will be important in Estonia to support our green technologies.”

After oil shale, Hints noted, Estonia has large deposits of phosphates, which she described as “high tonnage, low-grade resources,” but which contain elevated amounts of useful rare earth elements, which could be considered a byproduct of the phosphate mining industry. Hints added that exploration of these rare earth element resources is already underway in Estonia, both via the Geological Survey of Estonia, as well as in universities, such as in her research group at TalTech.

Estonia is also well positioned to utilize such deposits because it hosts a separation facility, Silmet, for rare earth elements in the northeastern city of Sillamäe, which she said is one of the few of such facilities outside of China.

“This is really something unique because we have the possibility to separate rare earth elements into separate components and can go on with producing magnets from these elements, for example,” Hints said. “Thinking of rare earth value chains as part of a longer value chain in Estonia is an interesting and very inspiring perspective,” she said.

The potential to change the world

Hints also took part in a discussion at GreenEST, part of which concerned attracting more students to the raw materials sector. Hints acknowledged that enticing more people to study the area is at times difficult, but said that better investments could be made to support training a new generation of experts to tackle Europe’s raw materials and greentech supply chain challenges.

Panelists at GreenEST Summit discuss the raw materials sector. Photo credit: Tehnopol

“I think we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of the new generation and understand what their expectations are,” said Hints. “I cannot just say that the raw materials sector needs you, but they have to understand this is a sector through which they have potential to change the world in the way they would like to see it in the future.”

Alar Saluste, a member of the management board at R-S OSA Service, part of the Ragn-Sells Group, also commented on the issue of fewer people going into the sector during the panel.

“This is something that the Netherlands or Germany have seen for decades,” Saluste said. “It is difficult to learn these trades such as chemistry, physics, and biology, and the job you get offered at the end is not sexy,” he said. Darina Štyriaková, CEO and founder at ekolive, a Slovakia-based greentech company, agreed with Saluste and noted that there is a decreasing number of students studying geology in her home country as well, and that local programs have increasingly looked outside of Slovakia, whether to Germany or further abroad, to find new students and experts.

Massimo Gasparon, director of the European Raw Materials Alliance at EIT RawMaterials, noted that the European Commission is aware of the challenges and is investing to support education at all levels. The Commission launched ERMA last year, with the aim to help Europe diversify its supply chains, create new jobs, attract investments to the raw materials value chain, and train new talent. EIT Raw Materials is a consortium founded and backed by the EU through the European Institute of Innovation and Technology.

“This is something that can be done in the short term in terms of providing reeducation for people already in the sector,” said Gasparon of investing in training new talent. He noted that people already employed in the fossil fuel sector are looking to switch their careers to the green economy. The Commission is also supporting new training opportunities for university students.

“These are the easy goals, these can be achieved in the short term,” said Gasparon about investing in new talent in the sector. He said it will be harder however to improve society’s understanding about how important issues around raw materials are, and that more must be done to get young people, not only in Europe but everywhere “excited about things that are exciting.”

Written by: Justin Petrone

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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