Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
Professor David Manning, Dr Bernie Rickinson and
Dr Mike Pitts
26 January 2011
Q1 Chair: Welcome,
gentlemen. Thank you for coming as witnesses this morning. As
you know, the Committee has decided to embark on an examination
of strategically important metals. We are interested in a number
of areas. Clearly, the reason why we have invited you is to listen
to the scientific views, but we are also taking evidence on recycling,
sustainability, product design and a whole range of other issues,
some of which came up in an excellent lecture that Dr Pitts gave
at the Royal Society of Chemistry not so long ago. The ground
that we want to cover is going to be particularly important as
time goes on. For the record, would you introduce yourselves?
My name is David Manning. I am Professor of Soil Science at Newcastle
University. I am here as Secretary for Professional Matters at
the Geological Society, representing the views of the geological
Dr Rickinson: My
name is Dr Bernard Rickinson. I am chief executive of the Institute
of Materials, Minerals and Mining. I am a metallurgist by training.
I also support the activities of the Materials Knowledge Transfer
Dr Pitts: I am
Mike Pitts. I am the sustainability manager for the Chemistry
Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network. I am here today representing
the Royal Society of Chemistry as I sit on the Industry Technology
Executive, and I am the RSC champion for sustainable design.
Q2 Chair: Thank
you very much. Let's start at the very basic level. What criteria
should we use to define a strategically important metal?
The key factor that underpins the geological perspective to this
is the ability of these materials to be sourced from mined resources.
It boils down to security of supply. We have seen in the submissions
that we have talked about the concept of reserves and resources.
The important thing for the Committee to be aware of is the difference
between those two terms, and I would like to clarify that a little,
if I can. Resources is a term used to describe the overall availability
of materials. We know that these materials and metals are out
there. Reserves is the term used very specifically to define that
material that can be won from the ground and has a particular
value in terms of current technology. So reserves are defined
in accordance with stock market regulations to guide investors.
With any mining operation you know what the reserves are because
you have to declare them according to very strict rules and regulations.
But, equally, the geologists who might work for those operations,
and indeed the directors, know that there is more to be found.
Q3 Chair: For
practical purposes it is available in an appropriate form?
It is there in the store cupboard, yes.
Q4 Chair: But
in a form that can be extracted?
In a form that can be mined, yes, and can be produced into a product.
Dr Rickinson: Taking
it to its very heart, what I would see as a critical metal, a
strategically important metal, is one that directly affects the
wealth creation available within UK business. There are many metals
that can affect that and can affect that supply chain, but, seeing
metals as just one part of a materials panoply, there has been
a tremendous explosion of development of materials, and metals
is one part, during the last 13 years. We can reflect on being
in the same position previously. Your inquiry in terms of this
as an area of concern has similarly been voiced in the past and
there are lessons to be learnt from the past.
Dr Pitts: I would
echo the comments about the way in which metals underpin technology,
development and growth within an economy. Of particular importance
is where they are critical towards future sustainable technologies,
which is the way we are going to have to move towards operating
as a future healthy sustainable economy. In that respect, we have
seen demand grow very strongly for some metals at a pace that
will probably outstrip supply in the short term because we just
can't react that quickly to get them out of the ground. That is
when they become extremely strategically important.
Q5 Chair: Some
metals, of course, have very volatile prices in the markets. Tin
is an example. It is not necessarily rare yet but the prices are
very volatile. Because of your responses, presumably you would
be arguing that we ought to be including in our studies metals
that are very volatile in price.
Dr Rickinson: You
can have volatility of price but you can also see over a period
of time price increases. For that, if you looked at the pricing
of copper or aluminium, you would see a trend there. As a consequence
of that trend, other things happen. One of the things that has
happened, as I am sure you are aware, is the tremendous increase
in theft of copper. That is driven by pricing relationships. The
same is true of nickel. I would certainly classify what would
be considered as, perhaps, almost commodity metals of nickel and
copper as something that is important to wealth and infrastructure
within the UK.
You need to think about other materials as well in the sense that
we are concerned about food security. The fertiliser minerals
are being talked about as being in short supply. Phosphorus is
one example, but the one that worries me is potassium. We saw
in the Financial Times over the last six months the saga
of the takeover bid for Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan in
Canada, which reflects the business interest in the supply of
potassium. We know that world potash production has to double
to feed the current population, that there are not enough mines
to do that and that $1,000 a tonne was the price of potash a couple
of years ago. It has come down but it won't come down too far.
So there are major issues relating to other minerals that we take
for granted which are used in other parts of society at the present
Q6 Chair: Dr Pitts,
you have published a version of the Periodic Table with splashed
all over it a list by scarcity almost.
Dr Pitts: We all
know about endangered speciesplants and animals. It is
an attempt to show that the elements are potentially endangered.
It is a dynamic situation, of course, and price isn't always the
best indicator of that due to the effects of speculators with
certain metals and materials. I would encourage you to broaden
the remit to look at phosphorus but also helium, which we are
losing irreversibly from the atmosphere. That is the only element
we are going to definitely run out of at some point in the future.
You can't create or destroy elements, but the way we are managing
most elements is really bad, and we are dispersing them in the
environment in a way that makes them harder and harder to recover.
We know on a grand scale what we are doing with carbon. We are
starting to wake up to how badly we are managing the nitrogen
or influencing the natural nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle
and other minerals. We just need to be a little more careful.
Q7 Roger Williams:
Perhaps you could set out what the key factors are that will
dominate the supply shortages for strategic metals for the UK
The important thing to bear in mind is that metals occur where
they occur in the world, so we are looking at a global distribution
of materials. Of course, much of the production is then related
to local factors. So we have a complete spectrum of mining activity
from what you might imagine in your mind's eye as a modern huge
copper mine or something like that in the western United States
through to what is called artisanal mining, where you have very
poor people working under very informal conditions to produce
columbite and tantalite for our mobile phones. There is this entire
spectrum. This is the nature of the business, effectively, across
The supply varies from the large mining companies
that are producing the commodity metals, to a large extent, down
to the artisanal miners who are producing the more speciality
metals. Some of the smaller companies on the AIM market are interested
in that as well. The trade is global.
Then we need to think about where the use is.
Of course, with commodity metals the use can be global as well,
but with a number of minerals the use can be very local. There
is a complete spectrum here. Much depends on where the value added
chain then takes off. Is manufacturing going to start closer to
the mine so that the components that contain those materials are
then sent to other units elsewhere, or does the raw material leave
the mine and then go off to be processed elsewhere? For example,
I am thinking of perlite in that respect, which is not a rare
material, but that is an example of a commodity that is mined,
taken to where it is needed and expanded to give the fluffy insulation
material that we use in building. It is a very diverse spectrum,
and it is very difficult to generalise.
Dr Rickinson: In
a similar analysis that went on in the late 1970s and early 1980s,
from my own institute, they successfully forecast that the growth
of developing countries' needs would provide a stimulus by which
the export of raw materialsorescould be made more
limited as a consequence of their infrastructure development to
satisfy growing needs within an emerging or growing population.
The recent activity within the rare earth's area is very much
prevalent to that same philosophy. There has been a consideration
that, with limited mining reserves, the capability of satisfying
a local market has started the throttle, the export, of very important
materials to other Asian communities that have grown to accept
that that material was almost on standing order. But these self-balance
because, as David has explained, material resources exist elsewhere
and with commercial pressure those can be re-financed and brought
on stream. In many cases related to the present feelings about
rare earth elements, there is a balancing taking place day by
day in the market to bring on stream resources that, particularly
in the States, were previously closed down associated with the
commercial realities at that time.
Dr Pitts: As a
chemist I look at it in reaction rates. Essentially the rate of
development of some technologies and the demand that that creates
is far outstripping the pace at which we can find new sources
to open up or reopen new sources and get them up to speed. It
takes something between six to 15 years to either reopen or start
up a mine to produce. The cycle time of some technologies come
and go much quicker than that. That is where some of the imbalances
come. A big future factor that is going to be very important is
energy. They use a lot of energy in mining and energy prices are
on the way up. This will cause considerable price rises in the
future. That will start to limit their availability or price certain
technologies and uses out of the market.
Q8 Roger Williams:
I don't think that any or all of you have talked about trade restrictions.
Certain Governments have been preventing or trying to work against
the export of particular materials. Would you like to say something
I don't think that is something we can comment on from a geological
Dr Rickinson: I
can give you another example that doesn't affect metals, but I
was recently made aware that my own institute embraces natural
materials just as well as it does metals. Appropriate levies that
were being applied from Russia in terms of exporting wood will
certainly have impacts associated with the UK's consumption of
that as a commodity, perhaps not at the present time because we
know that some construction is at a low, but it affects materials
endlessly. There is more and more political debate going on to
underpin what is important for local consumption. Last week Materials
KTN organised a mission to Holland to understand in actual fact
designing out landfill. This was a broad envelope. We succeeded
in drawing together many presentations from Dutch business. Every
single presentation really started from the point of material
scarcity. The Dutch, as is going on in the UK, are very concerned
about the way in which resources consumed within the UK's economy
are moved outside the international boundaries. Materials resources
is all about not just bringing materials in but controlling their
use almost in second life and third life within the international
contours of every nation. It's a legacy that we must protect.
Dr Pitts: I am
not sure that I am qualified to speak about the politics, but
we do see a price differential between internal customers in the
countries that control many of these minerals and the export,
but that doesn't really show all the picture. As you go up the
value chain in terms of the materials that these are made into,
that is often the way these things are now exported or imported
by the UK. I believe the trade restrictions and the price differentials
aren't quite so strong higher up the value chain. It means that
we are more and more reliant on foreign manufacturing.
Q9 Roger Williams:
Perhaps you could tell us which sectors of the UK economy are
going to be more vulnerable to shortages of these metals?
Dr Rickinson: Perhaps
one important area in which the UK has a strong presence is power
generation, aerospace and defence. Certainly from the point of
view, particularly, of power generation and aircraft power generation,
the complexity of materials that are used in an engine is incredible
and the demands on that are growing all the time. The staple base
material for the compressors parts of engines rely on nickel.
At the front end you are using titanium or composites. Within
the recipes that go on within manufacturing goods within our aero
engines, there are a lot of very special materials for coatings.
Hafnium is one and platinum is another. Without those materials,
the performance and, therefore, the wealth creation of those businesses
could be seriously jeopardised.
Dr Pitts: I have
spent quite a lot of the last few days talking to all sorts of
companies around the UK about material security and every one
of them has some kind of issue. It is pretty broad, certainly
from a chemical manufacturer's perspective. It impacts on oil
refining, which is something we do a lot of. These materials are
used in catalysis, fuel additives, catalytic converters in our
vehicle industry and glass manufacturers. Most of the rare earth
materials are used in about every consumer product you can think
of in electronic equipment. You are all carrying some around in
your briefcases, I assure you. So it is pretty widespread. It
is probably more hidden that we can really get a full picture
Q10 Roger Williams:
Given the fact that the Government has set out certain priorities
in terms of green technology, IT and medical technology, are the
Government's priorities going to be in any way impeded by these
shortages, and, if so, which particular ones out of those three
Dr Pitts: Most
of them. Rare earths and other strategic metals are used in the
manufacture of most renewable technologies, from solar panels,
through wind turbines, hybrid vehicles and in medical applications.
If there were no liquid helium, it would be very hard to use MRI
scanners. The alternative is rare earth magnets, which are also
at risk. Medical lasers and all of these things are at real risk.
I was going to comment about lithium batteries, which is something
that Nissan is trying to develop. They will need to be resourced
to supply that. There are a lot of uncertainties.
Dr Rickinson: If
you look at some specific numbers, much has been said recently
about neodymium iron boron magnets. Just to give you a scale of
things, not only will you have some of these rare earth materials
in your briefcase but you have plenty surrounding you in a car.
Hard drives in computers certainly exist as one, but in the car
you are talking about 1 to 2 kilos. If you are talking about wind
energy, then the figure I have been quoted is about a half a tonne
per megawatt hour. If the UK wishes to drive a strategy towards
the use of wind power for renewable energy and renewable energy
of that type is likely to be offshore, then the use of neodymium
iron boron magnetsneodymium being the operating element,
the rare earth element in questionis going to be critical
to the development of that strategy. The UK wanted to build a
strategy, a supply chain, associated within that. Is the present
situation associated with rare earth availability going to impact
on that UK strategy? I think those types of questions would need
to be asked.
If you go into the medical field, if you are unlucky
enough to have had a medical implant, the base of most medical
implants these days is cobalt. If you go to the European summary
of what they considered as critical materials, cobalt would appear
there. Cobalt certainly is important, but it is probably at a
different level than some of the other materials, like rare earths,
but it is nevertheless important for wealth within the UK. So
there are a number of materials that underpin wealth for the UK
and strategy for the Government that really need evaluating.
Q11 Roger Williams:
I am not quite sure if this is the right panel to ask this question
to, but I will give it a go anyway. Given the fact that the Government
have set out their priorities and, obviously, industry is very
driven within their own particular sector to deliver and improve
their technologies, is it the responsibility of the Government
or industry to hedge against these particular shortages?
There are certainly things the Government can do that would be
strategically valuable to help us make better use of these resources.
One of these is to make sure that we have an adequate supply of
expertise coming through the system of people who understand these
materials and who can answer questions of the type that you are
asking from the different disciplines that are in front of you.
We note that within the public sector we have bodies like the
British Geological Survey that have been monitoring the production
of minerals globally for 100 years or so now, where the expertise
that is required to do that is almost unique globally. There is
only the United States Geological Survey and the British Geological
Survey that do this. It is terribly important that that type of
expertise is maintained.
We also note that the provision of teaching
and research in universities of the work that is needed to bring
new people into the field of economic geology and understanding
the distribution, origin and where to find these materials is
something that again needs to be sustained and it needs to be
sustained through making sure that there is a research base that
will allow us to attract the best academics in the world to come
and work on this and then to inspire the youngsters, who then
have brains agile enough to be able to respond to the needs as
they arise. So there is a need for that kind of joined-up strategic
I note in the submission from the RCUK that
there is evidence of this and some very positive signs coming
out of that in terms of the proposed plan to invest £6 million
through the Natural Environment Research Council. We really do
want to see that go ahead. Talking amongst those who have been
a party to that, it seems that part of the idea there is to join
up across different groups and different disciplines. That is
exactly what is needed, so I hope that is taken forward.
Roger Williams: That is
Dr Rickinson: From
a Government strategy point of view, perhaps it is useful to make
comparisons, and the comparisons that I can best give you were
articulated to me about a month ago from a Japanese delegation
whose Government had been considering this for the last four years.
So they had seen on the rare earth side something coming over
the horizon. Their strand of strategy was four-pronged. It was
stockpiling, committing cash to exploration and resource development
offshore, looking towards alternatives and recycling.
Looking to the UK's strategy, whilst I am not suggesting
stockpiling or exploration, other than potentially re-examining
UK resources, the UK could develop itself incredibly well within
the field of recycling. Recycling won't be the area unique to
halt all problems in the future, but what the UK has, and this
was very clear to me when we made the Dutch mission last week,
is the fusing together of materials science and product design,
which is a very important and well developed ingredient within
What we ought to be spending some time to develop
is the way in which products can be disassembled more easily through
which those materials that are strategically important can be
recycled. Certainly, our capability on materials and product design
is world class. By putting those together, we could become globally
significant in so far as dealing with these crucial shortages
in the future.
Also, within our materials envelope within the UK,
we have an excellent materials research and development structure.
Therefore, from an alternatives point of view, there is an opportunity
of developing alternatives from within the UK with additional
research and development.
Coming back to the EU document, there was concern
where a great deal of resource was coming out of one particular
country, one of which is niobium, where a large proportion of
the world's supply of niobium is coming from Brazil. There are
alternatives to niobium. The vast proportion of niobium is used
in steel making for high strain steels, particularly for pipeline
steels, and it is very effective. Vanadium, similarly, can be
employed also as a substitute for niobium. So, looking at that
Periodic Table, one can pick out certain things that are more
critical than others, but I would come back from a strategic point
of view to saying that recycling for the UK is an important investment
to look forward to.
Q12 David Morris:
Given that substitution of one metal for another carries the risk
of replacing one supply problem with another, how much effort
do you consider should go into developing substitutes for strategic
Dr Rickinson: I
have just given you one examplethe vanadium-niobium link.
Another one comes back to medical. There has been a tremendous
surge of interest in the use of titanium rather than the use of
cobalt. Titanium in certain alloy configurations has certain disadvantages.
Cobalt is somewhat well balanced, but the chain is there because
if you turn the clock back 25 or 30 yearsand it is still
true in terms of animal implants because implants go into horses
as well as human beingsyou go from stainless steel. There
is a chain reaction to improvement. The materials research and
development activity within the UK is globally recognised as being
a very significant player. To put more effort into alternatives
to what we envisage as critical materials to wealth creation would
be money well spent.
Q13 David Morris:
What, if anything, can the Government and industry do to promote
any of this substitution?
Dr Pitts: Invest
in research. With some of these, direct substitution is not always
possible because the properties are fairly unique. In many cases
you might have to go even deeper in the innovation and replace
it with a whole new way of delivering the same effect. For example,
one of the most critical materials is indium, which we use in
the screens of phones, televisions at home and all sorts of different
LCD-type products. The next generation of technology will probably
be organic-based polymers to replace that. It will be organic
LEDs that don't require those metals. But that takes a long time.
It has a long lead time in terms of development, but investment
in that could put you ahead, and this is something that is happening
in some eastern countries, Japan, Korea and so on. Samsung are
working very hard on this, for example. I have a Samsung phone.
It has an organic-LED screen. At the moment these screens still
contain certain metals. The technology is not quite there yet
but it is getting there. Within the UK, we have a strength in
that area that could be nurtured and we could become real leaders.
If you have a substitute technology like that, then you really
can take on the world and solve a lot of people's problems.
Q14 David Morris:
So that is in perpetual development?
Dr Pitts: Yes.
It is long-term investment. Let me make a quick comment which
picks up the last point as well. In talking to a lot of companies
recently, they are actively looking to find ways to substitute
but they do need support in doing that. I was working in the last
few days with the Technology Strategy Board. We are setting up
an activity that brings in the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network
as well the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network.
We are all connected with different parts of the puzzle on this
one and we are working together to try and deliver this.
One of the things that companies would like the most,
rather than stockpiling as well as help in looking towards substitution,
is some understanding of what material will be critical in future,
because they get surprised sometimes by the changes in availability.
They don't always know where they should be focusing on substitution
within their own product ranges. It's the International Year
of Chemistry this year, and I hope you were all at its launch
this week. One of the things that this group, together with the
Royal Society of Chemistry, is hoping to do and will be looking
at is material security, and it would be great to see this as
a recommendation from this Committee as we move towards the fourth
quarter of the International Year of Chemistry activities and
focus on this topic.
It would be helpful for companies to have something
akin to the Stern report for resources, putting an economic value
on the linear economy as it stands, where we dig things out of
the ground, add value to them and discard them so that we can
have a real understanding of not only where materials go within
the UK economy but where they come out and the value we are not
placing on those, and even the environmental cost of removing
these. Once you get to a certain low grade of ore in mining some
of these materials, the environmental impact goes up because it
is harder and harder to get to that. Although economics might
say, "If the price rises, we can get to more inaccessible
grades", there is a concomitant rise in the environmental
impact that needs to be costed in.
I would like to make a very small comment because of course we
have heard the response that there is a need for more research.
Of course, we have the mechanisms for doing that through the research
councils, through various links with industry and all sorts of
schemes. The important point to bear in mind is that we need to
make sure that what we are discussing today rises sufficiently
high in the priorities, because what we recommend as research
that needs to be done has to compete with other priorities. So
having some kind of joined-up strategy is really important here.
Additionally, we need to recognise that, although
the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the
Natural Environment Research Council were named in the submission
from the RCUK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research
Council is active in mineral processing as well and we need to
make sure that that is not excluded by virtue of not having been
mentioned in some of the documentation that you might have seen
so far. I think there is a lot is going on.
Bearing in mind the way in which a great deal of
research is funded at the present time, perceptions of the public
are also becoming increasingly important. Again, we need to take
that on board, especially if we are considering the way in which
we might consider mining again in this country or developing our
own natural resources. We know that this country is one of the
most difficult in the world to get planning permission to take
a mine forward. Much work remains to be done there.
Dr Rickinson: Could
I just add another comment appropriate to substitution and take
the discussion slightly wider? There is a problem when you are
trying to develop substitutes, alternatives. It is not necessarily
in the properties through which you can meet the properties and
therefore displace the previous material. It is what happens next.
Sadly, in many cases what happens next is a whole raft of testing
and feasibility analysis, and that is a long process. Within the
aerospace world it certainly exists over a 10 to 13 year period,
so it is not short.
I would suggest to you that the word "substitution"
is actually broadened to incorporate the recycling of second-use
material. There are downsides within including used material into
virgin materials because sometimes the properties aren't exactly
as you would wish. Therefore, if you are talking about the way
in which Government could develop things, not only is there a
need for the development of alternatives, but a need exists to
consider the way in which we could reuse more of that material
and apply development to improving that reused material. Perhaps
from the people point of view, we should be encouraging the populace
not to see recycled, reused material, that perception, as being
There are two strands to the argument, but they very
definitely come back to your words "substitution" and
"alternatives", but they are using more of the same
rather than seeing a different element being used for the same
Dr Pitts: In relation
to straightforward substitution of one material with another,
you can spend a lot of time and a lot of effort, as Bernie suggested,
just to be where you were when you started and there is no overall
improvement in the material. An approach which Bernie has just
described is to substitute a material with a better business model
and a better process. Again, that takes longer and more effort
but potentially it puts you in a better position at the end of
it. Some of these developments will take longer but we will have
a more sustainable approach when we finish.
Q15 David Morris:
Do you think the technology is in place at this moment in time
to refine the recycling of these materials to make the quantities
and qualities uniform in the recyclable approach?
Dr Pitts: Certainly
potentially. In most cases it is technically feasible but economically
not, because we are not really costing properly the use of virgin
material. Hence there is a need to put a proper price on this
and understand where it goes. In most cases the technology exists,
but where more work is needed the research funds are not necessarily
in place and it is not seen as a nice academic challenge and there
is not the concentration on it that there could be. There are
however some really good groups around the UK that are already
working on this.
Q16 Chair: If
we model things based upon labour and energy costs in this country
and applied that to the cost of the natural material, in that
way you would be forced to think more rigorously.
Dr Pitts: It should
be the full costs of taking it out of the ground because that
is usually displaced in another country. It would be the energy
cost and the environmental impact of mining the material in the
first place. That has to be taken into account and balanced off.
We all know that aluminium is something like 5% of the amount
of energy used to recycle the material rather than from mined
ore in the first place. That is not the case for every metal.
Q17 Chair: The
more scarce it gets, the higher the price.
Dr Pitts: Yes.
Obviously, the higher the price goes anyway, the more economic
the recycling methods are, but I don't think we are seeing the
true price of it, anyway, in the first place.
Q18 Graham Stringer:
Dr Pitts told us one of the recommendations he would like to see
out of the report. What recommendations would the other two witnesses
like to see out of this report?
The most important thing from our perspective is to make sure
that we have the expertise coming through the system. I mentioned
this earlier on. We are conscious that those people who were involved
with a lot of the fundamental work about mineral deposits and
the occurrence and formation of these things, which is the very
base of understanding where minerals come from, are getting to
be quite grey haired and there will be a bit of a demographic
time bomb there potentially. We reckon that there may be six or
seven universities in this country which, truly globally, are
competing in terms of the science that is required, but they are
competing against some extremely strong players in Australia,
north America and Canada. We really do need to sustain this activity
and make sure it continues.
We also see at the present time, for example, that
there is only one Masters programme in mining geology in the country
and that is in Camborne School of Mines, which is part of the
university of Exeter. Of the 40 graduates who they take each year,
which is a very successful course, they mostly go off to South
Africa and Australia to work, so we are not retaining brains in
this country. It was ever thus. This is a global industry, people
work globally and it is very good for our people to go and study
and work overseas and then to come back in the fullness of time.
But, over the years, it has meant that we have tended to neglect
what we have in this country.
We see, for example, a major survey carried out in
Northern Ireland using modern geophysical methods, which has never
been done in England and Wales or in Scotland, and 90% now of
the territory is licensed for mineral exploration as a consequence.
We assume that because Cornwall has been around for thousands
of years as a mineral stockpile, we don't need to do any more
work there, yet there are treasures in Cornwall waiting to be
found. We need to make sure that this is consistently being worked
through and that continued work takes place on the geology and
aspects of the geological science.
In a way, we face a fundamental decision, especially
as the universities and the British Geological Survey are going
through a period of change, thinking about to what extent we are
going to be spectators on the world stage or to what extent we
are going to continue to lead. Given the success we have in sending
our young people, our graduates, through to recruitment in the
global mining companies, which is where we are still a preferred
source of recruitment, it needs to continue. We see the long-term
benefits of that coming through, but we have to make sure that
we are able to capture the interest of the school leavers and
turn out people through the universities who are stimulated by
research that is appropriate. That is where the biggest challenge
lies at the present time.
Dr Rickinson: I
have seen almost four strands in some recommendations. I think
it is timely that there be a re-auditthat could be part
of your own remitand an in-depth analysis of those materials
in the broadest sense that are important for the UK economy. Certainly,
from my point of view, I would like to see a recommendation that
a more detailed audit is taking place.
You would probably find that many of the solutions
to the problem already exist. It is one, therefore, of awareness.
To give you an example, on the neodymium iron boron issue that
I have already mentioned, through funding that has gone on within
the TSB and collaborations at the university of Birmingham, a
recycling technique has been discovered, evaluated and proven,
and it is looking now for commercial development, by which neodymium
iron boron magnets could be recycled within the UK. So out of
that university of Birmingham work funded by the TSB, which was
a short, sharp programme, a solution is pending. We have to make
that awareness of what is there available.
We have to influence the way in which product design
and materials work more closely together in the marketplace. Can
we reduce our reliance on critical materials by alternative choice
but at the product design stage just as much as at the materials
science stage? I see the linking together of product design, the
recycling and the ease of disability all being part of an important
solution to the issue. Coming out of the mission that we ran in
Holland last week, it was a reflection that we can't do it on
our own. The Dutch were saying that just as much as the UK were
saying that. Therefore, I sense that this is a collaborative activity
that has got to go on over international boundaries. So I would
like to see those four recommendations very definitely coming
Q19 Graham Stringer:
That's our report written after those answers. If we can go back
to the point that Professor Manning was making earlier about resources
within this country, in Cornwall and the south-west, how big a
problem are the planning regulations on mineral rights issues?
If there was a will in Government, is it possible to exploit the
resources that we have in this country or are the barriers too
The barriers are certainly complex. We know that where existing
planning permissions exist for all sorts of mining operations
that is the easy way in to build on the back of something that
has been granted many years ago for a different purpose sometimes.
That can be taken forward. There could be some ease in terms of
the strategic need for materials being recognised in the same
way that the planning law is being changed from the point of view
of looking at major installations over power generation and things
like that. If mining could come into that category, that would
The important point about mining is that much of
the problem arises from the automatic assumption that a mine is
definitely not a good neighbour. This is where the mining industry
has a role to play in demonstrating that a modern mine, run to
standards that we would expect in this country, can be a very
good neighbour. We see this in some of the open pit coalmining
near where I live in Northumberland. The mines of one of the
very good companies that operates there can be scarcely visible,
and so the company can have problems in getting planning permission
because no one knows a mine is there. It has backfired to some
extent and they have to work very hard to demonstrate to the public
for example just how quiet they are. That is where there is a
double edge to this. The consultation process tends to throw up
objections that are based on historical perceptions rather than
present day perceptions, and there may be ways in which that can
In general terms, the issues of mineral rights
and mineral ownership are extremely complicated and can also get
in the way. Of course, they vary between England and Wales, and
Scotland, on the other hand. I can't comment on those in detail.
Q20 Graham Stringer:
Dr Pitts was saying earlier that the other side of this equation
is where we buy rare earth and other difficult-to-obtain metals
from. How bad environmentally and to the individuals involved
is the extraction of rare earths in China? Can you give us a description
of what conditions are like?
Have you come across this in detail? We were talking about this
yesterday. We don't know much about the extraction process.
Q21 Graham Stringer:
I have just read that the conditions are poor.
We were saying yesterday that one of the ways in which this is
done is that the shale is taken out of the ground, it is treated
with acid in vats and then the materials are leached out and taken
away for refining. The important thing is that there is a huge
amount of residual material left because we are seeing mining
of a material that is quite low in concentration, even though
the ore metals are abundant in these particular deposits. So there
are huge amounts of waste. There is the use of acids. There is
the potential of natural radioactivity associated with the rare
earths in particular. So there is a whole accumulated set of issues
even before it leaves the mine to go through to wherever the output
of the mine is treated. We would like to know a lot more about
it in this particular instance. It is not something that we are
very familiar with.
Dr Pitts: They
are working very hard to improve environmental standards and manage
the industry right across China, which is having a knock-on effect
on the price because there is an associated price with better
management of tailings, radioactive waste and human welfare.
Q22 Graham Stringer:
Has the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive
helped with the recycling process or should it be developed further?
Dr Rickinson: I
think it has very much helped but I am not sure that the logistics
are absolutely right yet. Certainly, the evidence that we gathered
from the Holland mission suggests that a significant amount of
electronic goods related to either IT or straightforward domestic
appliances is being recovered in a much better way than has previously
been the case. I tended to see that the practice in Holland was
somewhat better organised than in the UK, but it's no doubt had
a beneficial effect.
Dr Pitts: I don't
think the legislation has quite done everything it was intended
to in terms of driving better product design and encouraging manufacturers
to design their materials for recovery and reuse. That is not
to say that there aren't extremely good examples of companies
that have done them, even within the UK. I know of one very good
example which my colleague, Tony Hartwell, in the next session
may be able to elaborate on some more, where Unipart has made
a profitable business out of recycling the Sky receiver boxes.
But in other cases the linking is not there. A parallel directive
is the End of Life Vehicle Directive. It won't be long before
something like 90% of a vehicle has to be recycled. The people
taking the vehicles apart aren't necessarily connected up with
the people making the components in the first place, who would
really like to get those materials back. It is a lot easier if
you are taking back a product but, if you are part of a very long
distributive supply chain, it is very hard for you to keep track
of those materials and get them back in an economic way to use
them again. You can design it for that.
Of course, there are conflicting design requirements
as well in terms of safety and longevity. Before Christmas, we
talked to a manufacturer of car stereo speakers, for example,
that use neodymium magnets because there is a huge pressure on
weight. They want higher performing magnets for very good quality
speakers but these things have to last, with car warranties extending
all the times, 20 to 30 years. They have to be as lightweight
as possible and as cheap as possible as well, but of course there
is no way that a car speaker manufacturer, from the way we manage
our vehicle waste at the moment, is ever going to see those speakers
again, much as they would like to.
Q23 Gavin Barwell:
Professor Manning was just saying that a modern mine run to a
high standard can be a good neighbour. Does the panel as a whole
think that a resurgence in domestic mining, either terrestrial
or offshore, is compatible with contemporary attitudes towards
Yes, I think it is. One of the good things about mining in this
country is that we can be absolutely sure of the control of the
environmental parameters. If we are interested in making sure
that we are responsible consumers of mined materials, then the
more we do that under our own control the better.
Dr Rickinson: I
would certainly endorse that the change over the last decade in
terms of sustainability, environmental parameters and health and
safety associated with mining has changed in all respects. Therefore,
a mining application within the UK would be at a different level
than it was probably previously thought of by the public. It's
a matter of perception, though, and convincing the public that
that, indeed, is actually taking place.
Dr Pitts: I am
not qualified to comment on mining but I would say we need to
get better. We have the capability in the UK within our chemistry,
science and engineering infrastructure to develop much better
ways to get materials out of mining ores and also so-called waste
streams where the concentration can often be higher than in the
ore that it came from.
Q24 Gavin Barwell:
My next question is to Professor Manning. The Geological Society
of London in the written evidence it submitted said that with
modern mining extraction techniques, coupled with high levels
of environmental safety, you believe it is possible to satisfy
concerns as well as deliver an economic benefit, and you would
be happy to provide details of specific instances to the Committee.
Could you give us a couple of examples?
Yes. We can certainly supply some examples in writing in the fullness
of time. With regard to the examples which come to mind, if I
can call upon something which is not necessarily part of your
inquiry, we can see that one of the justifications of open pit
mining of coal is that it supplies the fire clay which is required
to give a pale coloured brick that architects specify. If open
cast coalmining did not take place, then it would not be possible
to source those bricks. So that is a very small example of how
a single operation can produce different products for more than
one market and more than one requirement, making best use of the
opportunity to break open the earth. That is just one example.
Q25 Gavin Barwell:
Oakdene Hollins, in their written evidence, said that there was
a case for voluntary labelling schemes, such as that which the
Forest Stewardship Council uses to improve standards of mining
across the world. Is that something that any of you would like
to comment on? Is it something you agree with?
It's an interesting concept. There is certainly scope for that.
Certainly the more reputable companies would be able to wear such
a badge with pride. There is a lot to be said for that.
Dr Rickinson: I
Dr Pitts: Generally,
with labelling schemes, the aim is engaging the retailers in understanding
the issue because they tend to be the ones who make the decisions,
not the consumer.
Q26 Gavin Barwell:
Finally, can any of you offer any specific comments in terms of
what can be done to protect the marine environment from offshore
Yes. There is obviously a long history of marine mining and damage
that it has caused. That is a major concern in many parts of the
world. It is like mining on land in the sense that there are,
undoubtedly, going to be environmental costs. You cannot deny
that in any mining operation. You have to make sure that those
are acceptable. Then it comes down to how you define what the
acceptable environmental burden is that mining might impose. I
think that would be something carried out on a case by case basis.
We have seen the damage done in the offshore extraction of aggregates
to fuel this city with its construction needs. That's one example
which comes immediately to mind. If we were to look for materials
like platinum offshore in western Scotland, it would be another
matter again. A case by case basis is what is needed.
Dr Rickinson: Certainly
from a materials point of view, manganese and magnesium are often
cited as two materials that have the capability of being extracted
from oceans. Of the two, manganese is probably more easily accessible
on land rather than resorting to ocean mining. As for magnesium,
quite a lot of development work is going on at the moment since
magnesium is seen as a material of choice for light weighting
going forward, but magnesium costs at the moment are prohibitive.
Dr Pitts: I couldn't
Q27 Chair: To
what extent are mining opportunities offshore a significant part
of the solution?
It is very variable in the sense that you can think of some examples
in some parts of the world where offshore mining would be possible.
I am thinking of materials that are sands that have been eroded
from the surface and deposited offshore. Those have been mined
particularly, for example, in south-east Asia, for tin in the
past, and there is scope for going back to look at that. There
has even been consideration of doing that offshore in Cornwall
in the past, as I can recall, during my career.
Generally speaking, I think the preference is to
mine on land, because logistically there are some benefits. Offshore
brings in additional uncertainties. We also have the issue of
mining the sea water itself. Indeed, with the magnesium, that
could be derived from sea water itself rather than from any minerals
that are found underneath the sea. So there is a difference there
to be borne in mind. Sea water itself is a raw material in that
We need to be aware that offshore mining is not so
much a case of having a mine like an oil well that goes from an
offshore platform, down a shaft and then you have mining offshore
in that sense. Offshore mining is generally taking something that
is at the sea bed and removing it for processing on land. So it
is necessarily going to be very disruptive to the sea bed. Underground
mining offshore is something that can be contemplated and, indeed,
does take place in this country at the present time for potassium
in Yorkshire. We know that you can have a mine where you start
off onshore and end up offshore, underneath the sea. That is something
which will go on with the same type of environmental restrictions
as you find for an onshore mine. It just so happens that the sea
is between you and the atmosphere.
Q28 Stephen Metcalfe:
If we were to expand mining activity here within the UK, would
the driver for that be because it is economically viable and we
would be adding to the overall capacity, to the pot of strategically
important metals, or would it be to protect our own supply chain?
Is there a diversity available within our own country that would
help do that?
It is fair to say that we don't have the resources in this country
that would enable us to go out and mine what we need on a strategic
basis, particularly for something like rare earths. For tungsten
we might have, but tungsten is the only metal that has come out
of our inquiries in connection with this matter that would be
in that category. We have to work with other people. In the context
of some of these strategic metals, then a European approach might
be the most appropriate way of looking at that. Even then, there
are some materials that we don't know of as resources let alone
reserves in Europe. So we are going to have to work with the north
Americans, Canada and the United States, to look at rare earths,
for example. This is the way the industry functions, of course,
as a global industry and, in a sense, we want to see ways of encouraging
that type of global exploration and trade but where we are in
the driving seat and able to understand the commercial opportunities.
Dr Rickinson: Could
I answer your question in a slightly broader way and suggest that
mining opportunities might exist but not necessarily in the traditional
way in which you are creating a new mine? Certainly the activities
that I have seen over the last few years of our KTN activity starting
to gain favour is the mining of resources that, to some extent,
we have createdin other words, mining of landfills. There
is good documentation within landfills as to what they contain.
As the choice of the public has changed over the years, there
is a repository of material that exists within our landfills of
today. As a future life rather than simply to extract methane
as a fuel gas from evolving landfills, here is an opportunity
to create that second resource.
Alternatively, one goes back to the tailings that
exist in previous mines. I would suggest that work should go on
both from a strategic point of view and from meeting domestic
supply in tailings rather than necessarily sinking new mines.
In both cases, one is re-evaluating that which has already been
used. Certainly, the opportunity of re-mining landfill is something
that we should take seriously. I was struck by the fact that,
again, coming back to our Dutch mission, they were suggesting
that the UK had a unique opportunity not to make the same mistake
that the Dutch had fallen into. They had very little landfill
to consume and needed to slow down the rate of landfill use. So
they opted for a pathway towards incineration. Incineration has
a habit of effectively using up the resources that are coming
into the country. From the point of view of containing that raw
material that has been used on our island and giving it a new
life, I would suggest that mining might be considered in slightly
Dr Pitts: I would
endorse that and add to it slightly in terms of not really knowing
where all our so-called waste material goes. I don't really have
much in the way of data for where much of our electronic waste
goes, for example. Most of it gets exported because it is cheaper
and more economic to have that process dealt with elsewhere in
I have some data with me. In 2005, we exported
800,000 tonnes of non-ferrous metals. That was a 20% increase
on the previous year. Would it have been better if it had been
kept here and been used and processed? Bernie, you might want
to comment on that.
Dr Rickinson: I
could. It is incredibly sad. Part of an activity that we are involved
in with the Home Office comes back to copper and copper thefteffectively,
it's getting out of the country and, potentially, it's going out
to China and it might even be to Poland. Why is it going there?
It's going there because the evidence we have at the moment is
that scrap dealers who are dealing in scrap copper have no place
left in the UK for it to be re-melted. This has gone under the
When I trained as a metallurgist, the north-west
area around Preston was rich in so far as the manufacture of copper
cable was concerned, and it still is. As we understand, but to
be confirmed, all of that raw material is actually coming in as
coil to be drawn down to supply our national infrastructure. It
seems rather sad, then, that all of that theft or all of that
scrap material is exiting the UK, with all the carbon miles associated
with bringing it back, rather than a recycling industry being
established within the UK to turn it round as a resource that
never leaves the UK.
Q29 Chair: That
ignores the morality of those awful pictures of kids sitting on
scrap heaps dismantling things, doesn't it?
Dr Rickinson: Yes,
Q30 Chair: They
are our goods.
Dr Rickinson: If
one developed a strategy along these lines, it might also create
a greater deterrent through which you could stop copper theft
happening in the first place because much of it goes outside the
country without it necessarily being observed.
Q31 Graham Stringer:
Do you think we need a form of Government intervention or do you
think that the market will deal with that situation? It is rather
surprising, given those enormous figures, that the market hasn't
dealt with that.
Dr Rickinson: I
think it is commercially related. The market could respond, but
herein is an opportunity. Within your own evaluation, whether
it is rare earths or whatever, there are immense technical opportunities
for the UK, because processes have been developed in which the
UK could invest without necessarily going through a melting route.
Q32 Stephen Metcalfe:
Assuming that we did develop this recycling capacity, how would
we then encourage manufacturers to design products where either
we are minimising the use of these particular metals or we are
making it much easier to recover them? You spoke of mining old
landfill sites, but not much thought was given to how you might
get the material out of the product again at a later point. Going
forward, presumably, this has to be a priority. How do we encourage
manufacturers and designers to do that?
Dr Pitts: Behaviour
change does come with changes in price. I have heard much anecdotal
evidence in the last few days where companies, because the price
has risen, have started to do internal recycling where they had
not done that before. As I said, good quality information is what
they need to know what might surprise them in the future. They
can't say what it might be because they are going to be surprised,
and we need to know what is coming in, what is going out and what
might be a future threat. The picture is really not as clear as
it should be. The real value of SIMs is not placed on them.
The only point I would make in connection with recycling is, of
course, that the demand for raw materials far exceeds the amount
that is being thrown away, or at least I would like to be satisfied
that we are able to bridge that gap quite happily. Provided that
limitation is taken on board, there is no reason why recycling
shouldn't contribute a major amount, but whether we are going
to go the whole way remains to be seen because we simply haven't
thrown away enough yet. We are still using it. That is a major
issue that means that continuous mining is going to be needed.
As to the mining of landfills, as one who has
spent many a happy hour on a landfill site, it is a challenge
for us. The interesting aspect of this is that some of the innovative
ways of treating domestic waste are mineral processing-type activities
that are being applied to what the dustbin lorry delivers to a
works. We are seeing movement in that direction. We will see this
develop more and more as time goes on, but the materials that
would be coming out of landfill would be the commodity metals,
I would think, more than anything else at the present time.
Q33 Stephen Metcalfe:
I understand that as we recycle some of these metals they lose
their properties. You touched upon that earlier. Is there any
way of mitigating that? How does one maintain the quality of material
that has been recovered and then recycled, or do you lose it eventually?
Dr Rickinson: It
varies from one material to another, so there is no universal
rule here. You can certainly go through product development in
terms of greater and greater use of recycled scraps, but when
it comes to critically performing materials like turbine blades
in aircraft there is only a limited amount of material that might
be returned for a particular specification. The same is true of
aluminium in terms of picking up tramp elements like iron, which
reduce properties. I am convinced that, with additional alloying
substitutions and development in that area, that might be counter-balanced.
From metals it goes into plasterboard. Plasterboard has a limit
in terms of the amount of recycled materials that you can put
into it. It is really a matter of helping and encouraging that
development, by which we might increase that quantity to reduce
our net inventory of raw material coming into the UK.
Dr Pitts: Pure
metals are infinitely recyclable. It is only when we start to
combine them that it causes the problem. It is economy of scale,
really. When you are mining, it is the same kinds of processes.
If you can get a high enough concentration of a particular type
of material, you will find a way to do it because it will be worthwhile.
Chair: Gentlemen, thank
you very much. That has been an extremely helpful start to our