Sweden is famous for a lot of things: snow, Volvo, IKEA, the aesthetic qualities of its national gene pool, ABBA, the longstanding absurdity that is surströmming… Mining, however, isn’t one. Which is perplexing, given the country accounts for more than 90% of Europe’s iron ore production and is home to the Falun mine in Dalarna, which made significant contributions to the Swedish economy throughout its — no kidding — almost 1000 years of operation.
But the sector’s apparent anonymity could be turning. In January last year, Sweden’s state-owned mining company LKAB discovered what it claims to be Europe’s largest deposit of rare earth oxides, at more than a million tonnes.
“Given the volumes we have today, it could bring in the significant volume of material needed in Europe — not nearly to be self-sufficient but it is an important first step,” LKAB CEO Jan Mostrom said at the time.
The discovery — and Sweden’s broader resolve to nurture its resources industry — wasn’t lost on the folks at Ragnar Metals (ASX:RAG), which in June 2023 sold its Swedish nickel assets to BHP (ASX:BHP) and instead went on a lithium and rare earths buying spree.
No sooner had the Tullsta Nickel Project been offloaded when — the same day, in fact — Ragnar announced the purchase of the Halleberget and Bergom lithium projects and the Olserum North and Gruvhagen REE projects.
In October, the Perth-based explorer sealed its acquisitive run with the Orrvik Lithium Project, rounding out an enviable package of Swedish assets to add to its existing Leeds and Kenya gold projects in Western Australia, which Ragnar acquired in early 2021.
The sale of the Tullsta Project to BHP’s subsidiary, BHP Metals Exploration, netted Ragnar a tidy little war chest with which to snap up a few lithium and REE assets.
According to an announcement on 26 June, 2023, Ragnar earned $9.8 million along with a deferred 1% net smelter return royalty, payable upon the commencement of production, which BHP has the right to buy back for another $10 million.
“This transaction provides exceptional value for the company with a substantial initial cash injection and exposure to production through the royalty,” Executive Director Eddie King said at the time.
“I am excited to continue working with BHP to finalise the transaction and then re-direct our attention to exploring further critical mineral opportunities in Sweden.”
While the majority of critical minerals production takes place outside the EU, the bloc views Sweden as critical to its strategy for self-sufficiency. According to the Geological Survey of Sweden, the country is home to known deposits of antimony, fluorite, phosphate minerals, graphite, cobalt, platinum group elements, rare earths, bismuth, and tungsten.
Published by the European Commission in March 2023, the Critical Raw Minerals Act proposed legislation designed to further the production of raw materials, including increased mapping, research, and innovation by the EU’s member states. Certain targets related to mining, processing and recycling were also put forward, highlighting the need for speedy and transparent permitting methods.
Like ships in the night, out went Tallsta and in came the Halleberget and Bergom lithium projects.
Located 10km north and along strike from the prolific Jarkvissle lithium pegmatite deposit, the Halleberget Project was explored by LKAB Prospektering in 1984 which identified a number of outcropping lithium-cesium-tantalum (LCT) pegmatites at widths up to 3m. Though LKAB was focused largely on tin-bearing minerals, samples from two stacked dykes observed over a 500m strike length returned 0.47% lithium oxide, as well as 196 parts per million (ppm) tantalum, 0.68% rubidium, and 24ppm germanium.
The Bergom Project, meanwhile, sits roughly 100km north-east of Halleberget and was also investigated by LKAB in 1984. Only one assay was completed, which returned 0.17% lithium oxide, 0.38% tin, 95ppm tantalum, and 0.5% rubidium.
“We are excited to expand our exploration portfolio with highly prospective lithium projects, in one of the world’s best mining jurisdictions,” King said.
“We believe Sweden’s lithium potential is still to be unlocked, so we remain very committed to continued success as one of Sweden’s most active and effective explorers for critical minerals.”
The 36km-square Orrvik Project came a few months later, in October, taking Ragnar’s total lithium landholding in Sweden to 168km-square. Located just to the west of the Bergom Project, Orrvik consists of 4 exploration licences and hosts two lithium occurrences: Orrvik and Stenback.
The project was — again — explored by LKAB in the mid-80s, which included the mapping of a small outcrop exposing a section of pegmatite at surface. Four holes were later drilled at an average depth of 37.3m, and although the assays were “incomplete and selective,” there were some encouraging results, including 0.3m at 3.3% lithium superoxide within a broader interval measuring 3m at 1.2% lithium superoxide and 0.2% tin oxide.
Sampling activities by Ragnar at Halleberget, Bergom and Orrvik in the latter half of 2023 — the results of which were announced in early November — confirmed the widespread potential for spodumene mineralisation.
A total of 64 samples were collected from Halleberget, focusing on the H1, H2 and H3 prospects. Evidence of a range of rare metal minerals was observed at H1, including tantalite, cassiterite and lithium phosphate, while H2 delivered a “surprisingly high” lithium result of 0.13% lithium oxide and 46.1ppm tantalum pentoxide. H3, meanwhile, returned assays up to 495ppm lithium oxide and 56.6ppm tantalum pentoxide, plus a variety of elevated pathfinder elements.
At the Bergom and Orrvik projects, Ragnar collected 83 samples confirming high-grade lithium mineralisation in two areas along with highly fractionated rare metals pegmatites in three other locations.
“Confirmation of widespread lithium and other rare metals is a pleasing result and the next steps involve further detailed magnetics and a ground gravity survey to determine the scale of a maiden drill program next year,” King said in November.
…And rare earths
Where lithium represents the first of Ragnar’s two-pronged push into Sweden, rare earths is the second.
The Olserum North and Gruvhagen projects, which Ragnar staked in what was clearly a very busy period in June, cover a total 37.3km-square of tenure considered highly prospective for heavy rare earth mineralisation and neodymium-praseodymium (NdPr) metals.
Located just 8.5km north of European Green Metals’s Olserum Project, in an “identical” geological setting, Olserum North is home to the Hylleled prospect, where rocks measuring up to 4,044ppm REE have been historically reported. The prospect was originally discovered by the Geological Survey of Sweden as part of the European Commission-funded EURARE Project in 2019 but, as of June, had never been subject to follow-up exploration.
It wasn’t long before Ragnar undertook its own sampling program at Olserum North’s Hylleled and Flaken prospects, announcing in July assays up to 9,012ppm and 11,991ppm total rare earth oxides, respectively. A detailed airborne magnetics survey at the project has since been planned for February 2024, with potential drill targets to be considered thereafter.
Gruvhagen, on the other hand, lies much further to the north near the town of Bastnas, a region known for the REE-bearing carbonate mineral ‘bastnasite’. A review of historical rock samples showed significant levels of REE up to 36,920ppm and 32% NdPr at the Morkens prospect, as well as 24,573ppm REE and 24% NdPr at the Gruvhagen prospect.
Ragnar also noted these occurrences at Gruvhagen are often associated with other metals, such as cobalt, copper, gold, and iron.
“We continue to be impressed with the potential for critical minerals on our projects in Sweden, and we look forward to continuing our exploration program following this compelling result from Gruvhagen“
More recently, the results of a sampling program announced in mid-August continued the run of significant occurrences, with the Morken prospect delivering up to 19.7% total rare earth oxides, 31% NdPr, 169 grams per tonne (g/t) gallium, 0.8% copper, and 490g/t cobalt. A 700m strike length of REO-gallium mineralisation between the Morkens East and Gruvhagen prospects was also defined.
“We are delighted to announce early confirmation of significant NdPr and gallium mineralisation over the potential 700m strike,” King said in August.
“We continue to be impressed with the potential for critical minerals on our projects in Sweden, and we look forward to continuing our exploration program following this compelling result from Gruvhagen.”
What next for Sweden?
Though it be small on the world stage, Sweden seems increasingly mighty.
In 2021, the country ranked 17th out of 84 jurisdictions for ‘investment attractiveness’, according to the Fraser Institute’s Annual Survey of Mining Companies, and was the only European jurisdiction whose score increased from the year before. For ‘policy perception’, it ranked 19th.
Notably, Sweden ranked the highest of any jurisdiction in 2021 for ‘quality of infrastructure’, with the majority of survey respondents saying it encouraged investment, and was 7th for ‘availability of labour/skills’.
How these qualities fare in the years to come given the tensions brought on by the Russia-Ukraine War remains a matter of conjecture, but it’s nevertheless clear that Sweden is taking its resources industry seriously. Those strategically placed to take advantage of that effort — like, say, Ragnar Metals — are likely to do very well.
Write to Oliver Gray at Mining.com.au