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An Interview with Clara Boissenin of Prospex Institute, partner in the H2020 project SecREEts

Could you summarise what SecREEts is all about and what you are aiming to achieve in the project?

SecREEts is a project funded under the European Commission’s research & innovation programme Horizon 2020 (GA No 776559). The name SecREEts stands for Secure European Critical Rare Earth Elements. At the core of the project, there is a partnership of four European industrial companies, who are looking to create a sustainable, stable and safe value chain for the extraction and processing of Rare Earth Elements into permanent magnets in Europe. This value chain is based on the extraction of Rare Earths as biproducts from European apatite sources used in fertilizer production, which means there is no need for extra mining.

Can you tell us a bit more about Prospex Institute's role in the project?

Prospex Institute is a Belgian non-profit organisation specialised in citizen & stakeholder engagement and participation in processes and dialogues that are societally relevant. In SecREEts, we facilitate discussions between industrial partners and their local communities to raise awareness of challenges and opportunities related to Rare Earths. We do that through yearly workshops called 'Citizen Labs' in which we involve members of the local community, so they can ask questions, raise any concern they might have about the industrial process, plan other forms of engagement such as school trips, interviews with local media... The objective is to build trust and create together not only a degree of social acceptance but also a better understanding of why this project is important. In parallel to these local meetings, we are also planning to create a Virtual Citizen Lab experience to reach consumers and citizens on a broader European scale, but this is still in the planning phase.

We also organise yearly 'Policy Councils', meetings in which we engage with a variety of high-level stakeholders from the industry, academia and policy-making. These meetings provide a forum for these actors to discuss issues related to rare earths such as security of supply, business cases, social and environmental standards and more. This is also a way to cluster with other EU funded projects and initiatives working on critical raw materials, and to create opportunities for further engagement and business opportunities.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges in the REE sector at the moment? How does SecREEts contribute to addressing them?

Europe needs REEs more than ever. They are at the heart of many objectives of the European Union, starting with the Green Deal, but also medical applications, defence, digitalisation… And yet, there is a lack of diversity of supply and a lack of self-reliance, which could make Europe vulnerable to evolutions of the market. Not having any control over REE supply also means a lack of transparency when it comes to value chains, with little to no way of knowing what social, safety and environmental standards are applied. SecREEts is contributing to the diversification of supply by proposing an intra-European solution, but also by working towards high sustainability, in social and environmental terms, and putting health and safety at the core of the value chain.

In addition, there is a general lack of awareness from consumers and the public at large of what Rare Earths are and how important they are in our everyday life, from personal electronic items to medical applications such as MRI scans for instance. It is also not obvious to many Europeans that there is no chance of reaching carbon-neutrality by 2050 without reviewing our approach to raw materials supply. This is true for REEs but also for other everyday consumption products, including food or textile, and it could greatly affect consumers’ behaviour in the future. SecREEts is looking at improving this awareness at the local level, directly with communities around pilot sites, and in the future, at a broader European level through virtual engagement.

How do SUSMAGPRO and SecREEts complement each other from your point of view?

SUSMAGPRO closes the loop of the SecREEts supply chain. SecREEts is developing a solution to produce permanent magnets made in Europe, but the scope of the project does not go as far as looking into End-of-Life magnets. By focusing on recycling and re-processing or permanent magnets, SUSMAGPRO is the perfect follow-up of SecREEts, as it closes the loop: maybe one day SUSMAGPRO's partners will recycle magnets produced through the SecREEts value chain, and this will all have been done in a fully European value chain. If both projects are successfully scaling up, this would be a major step forward for European industries, and a great contribution to the objectives of the Green Deal.

Where do you see the greatest opportunities for synergies and cooperation between the projects?

It is clear that both projects are highly interlinked. Our objectives are aligned, and we have partners in common, including some already involved in the recently launched European Raw Materials Alliance. There is an opportunity to foster industrial symbiosis between the two projects, but also to collaborate on a communication level, engaging with high-level stakeholders who could have an impact or be affected by REEs needs in Europe in the coming years. This is also applicable for consumer engagement: both projects aim to increase the level of awareness around critical materials and to propose alternatives. By joining forces, we could reach a wider public and foster the discussion around consumption behaviours and patterns.