Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-33)

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?

Professor Manning: 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 community.

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 Network.

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?

Professor Manning: 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?

Professor Manning: It is there in the store cupboard, yes.

Q4 Chair: But in a form that can be extracted?

Professor Manning: 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.

Professor Manning: 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 time.

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 species—plants 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 in particular.

Professor Manning: 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 world.

  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 materials—ores—could 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 about that?

Professor Manning: I don't think that is something we can comment on from a geological perspective.

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 of.

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 groups, then?

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.

Professor Manning: 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 magnets—neodymium being the operating element, the rare earth element in question—is 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?

Professor Manning: 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 thinking.

  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 helpful.

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 the UK.

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 metals?

Dr Rickinson: I have just given you one example—the 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 years—and it is still true in terms of animal implants because implants go into horses as well as human beings—you 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.

Professor Manning: 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 second best.

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 purpose.

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?

Professor Manning: 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-audit—that could be part of your own remit—and 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 through.

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 high?

Professor Manning: 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 help.

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 be eased.

  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?

Professor Manning: 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.

Professor Manning: 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 environmental protection?

Professor Manning: 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?

Professor Manning: 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?

Professor Manning: 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 couldn't answer.

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 mining activity?

Professor Manning: 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 comment.

Q27 Chair: To what extent are mining opportunities offshore a significant part of the solution?

Professor Manning: 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 particular context.

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?

Professor Manning: 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 created—in 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 different contexts.

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 the world.

  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 theft—effectively, 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 radar, effectively.

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, it would.

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.

Professor Manning: 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 inquiry.




 
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