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La Rochelle’s rare earth plant: Solvay’s strategy to reignite Europe’s mineral independence

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Solvay, the current owner of a once-prominent rare earth processing plant in La Rochelle, France, is taking ambitious steps to rejuvenate the facility and restore its status as a major player in the rare earth market. This initiative comes as Europe intensifies its efforts to boost the production of critical minerals essential for the green energy transition.

A storied history of rare earth production

Four decades ago, the La Rochelle plant was among the largest rare earth processing facilities globally, producing materials for various technologies including color televisions, arc lights and camera lenses. The plant’s output set global benchmarks for rare earth prices during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the facility’s productivity has since waned, reflecting the broader trend of rare earth processing shifting to China.

The shift to China and its impact

China emerged as a dominant force in the rare earths market, a group of 17 minerals crucial for numerous high-tech applications, by offering lower prices, largely due to government support and less stringent environmental regulations. Over the past 25 years, this dominance has led to the migration of rare earth processing from Europe and the United States to China. Despite recent efforts to enhance sustainability and close polluting operations in China, the country still leads in rare earth production, accounting for 298,000 metric tons of rare earth oxides in the past year.

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Solvay’s revival plan

Currently, the La Rochelle plant produces 4,000 metric tons of separated rare earth oxides annually, a small fraction of China’s output. The plant’s production has been primarily focused on rare earths used for auto catalysts and electronics, not the types required for permanent magnets in electric vehicles (EVs) and wind turbines.

Solvay has announced plans to begin producing rare earths for permanent magnets by next year. “We at Solvay want to put rare earths for permanent magnets back on the map in Europe,” said An Nuyttens, President of Solvay’s division for rare earth products. “It’s not an easy task; it will be a step-by-step process, as the entire supply chain from mining to magnet production needs to be developed.”

The 160-year-old chemical group aims to eventually supply 20% to 30% of the separated rare earth demand for magnet production in Europe. However, Nuyttens cautioned that reaching this goal may not be feasible until after 2030, and no specific date was given.

Challenges and opportunities for Europe

The revival of Europe’s rare earth industry faces significant challenges. According to a Reuters analysis, by 2030, the EU is expected to have minimal output from rare earth mines. Only one metals and alloys project is currently in the pipeline, and it is a low-margin venture. Public opposition to new mining projects, limited funding, and uncertain demand, coupled with faltering EV sales and weak metal prices, further complicate efforts to boost rare earth production in Europe.

Despite these hurdles, the EU is projected to achieve 45% of its rare earth separation needs by 2030, largely through reprocessing waste from Sweden’s LKAB iron ore mines. However, this will only contribute to about 1% of the EU’s demand for oxides necessary for magnets. The European Commission’s Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) aims to address these issues but does not cover magnet production, which is expected to meet only 22% of demand by 2030.

“The window between now and 2030 is closing quickly in the context of how long it takes to get these projects and processing facilities off the ground,” said Ryan Castilloux of Adamas Intelligence, a consultancy specializing in critical minerals. Castilloux noted that excluding magnets from the CRMA targets is a “blind spot” and could lead to misleadingly positive outcomes for the EU’s rare earth ambitions.

The path forward

Solvay’s efforts at La Rochelle represent a critical step in addressing Europe’s reliance on Chinese rare earths and achieving greater self-sufficiency in the production of these vital materials. The success of such initiatives will depend on overcoming significant economic, environmental, and social challenges while ensuring a sustainable and resilient supply chain for the future.

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