Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

2  Background

What are strategically important metals?

8.  Of the 94 naturally occurring elements 72 are metals and, since the Bronze Age, metals have been integral to the lives of people living in the UK. Today society depends on metals for nearly everything: from bulk metals, such as iron for construction and copper for delivering electricity, to rarer, specialist metals that are used for their, often unique, properties in high technology applications. For example, cobalt is the "base of most medical implants";[7] indium is used to make clear transistors for use in touch screens and liquid crystal displays;[8] neodymium is alloyed with iron and boron to make high strength magnets essential for modern electric motors and wind turbines;[9] lithium is the key component in modern batteries;[10] and the list goes on.

9.  Clearly, metals are important. Two recent reports (one by the European Commission, the other by the US Department of Energy) on materials security rated metals on their "critical" importance, characterising criticality as a combination of importance and security/scarcity.[11] In this inquiry, we sought to identify the criteria by which a particular metal is defined as being strategically important to the UK.

10.  In its written submission, the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network (ESKTN) pointed to the subjective nature of "importance":

One problem here is how strategically important metals are defined. In the past this term may have referred to metals with critical roles in military applications. A broader approach would consider materials that are important to the performance of […] advanced systems, machines or new technologies.[12]

11.  The Geological Society of London stated that in defining what is strategically important, "economic importance is not the only factor—environmental protection, national security and other benefits may also be significant".[13] We explored the problem of defining strategically important metals in oral evidence with a number of witnesses. However, it was apparent that while importance and availability were key themes, there was no single definition of the term "strategic".[14] What is strategically important to one user may not be strategically important to others. That is, while a metal's availability or security of supply could be similar for many organisations within the UK, the importance placed on that metal would vary depending on the extent to which it is used by each organisation.

12.  For the purpose of this inquiry we therefore have had to take a broad definition and we took strategically important metals—hereafter referred to as strategic metals—to be those that may be of importance to any user within the UK. With, however, the Government's policy of consolidating existing strengths in advanced manufacturing to drive export growth and supporting new and expanding industries, our inquiry has focussed more on the specialist metals such as cobalt, indium, neodymium and lithium with specific technological applications.


13.  We were aware that in some of the written and oral evidence we received, there appeared to be some interchangeable usage and confusion of the terms rare earth element (REE) and strategic metal.[15] In particular, the bulk of the Government's written submission to this inquiry focussed on issues concerning REEs.[16]

14.  REEs are a group of 17 metals comprising:

  • the 15 elements in the "lanthanide series" of the periodic table, that is lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium; and
  • the two transition elements, yttrium and scandium.[17]

They are sometimes referred to as rare earth metals (REMs) or simply as rare earths (REs). Though their name would suggest otherwise, they are not actually rare. The name comes from their seeming scarcity when first discovered in the late 18th century and finding reasonable concentrations of them that are economically extractable is quite rare.[18] In most materials security assessments, REEs are considered as a single resource because they often occur together in the Earth's crust and have similar chemical properties.[19]

15.  The confusion in metal terminology became apparent when we were questioning Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science. When asked to clarify whether he was referring specifically to the "rare earths" as described above, or whether he was using the phrase to describe "scarce minerals", he responded: "I am referring to the particular elements in about the middle of the periodic table. What I found quite useful as a layman, as the simplest guide [...] is the Chemistry World chart".[20] The chart described by the Minister is shown below. The highlighted elements he referred to include some "rare earth elements" (scandium, yttrium and neodymium—shown in the chart as 21Sc, 39Y and 60Nd respectively) but also include other scarce metals and non-metals of strategic importance.

Taken from: "Critical thinking", Chemistry World, January 2011

16.  There are in fact many strategic metals other than REEs: for example, the European Commission report, Critical raw materials for the EU, defines 14 critical materials, one of which is the group of REEs.[21] The focus of the Government's written evidence on REEs, in our view, misses a whole range of strategic metals. The list below gives an indication of some of the metals that have been drawn to our attention during this inquiry as those of strategic importance to the UK:

Table 1: Strategically important metals

antimonyberyllium chromium
cobaltgallium germanium
goldhafnium indium
lithiummagnesium nickel
niobiumrhenium tantalum
titaniumtungsten vanadium
Rare earth elements: scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium
Platinum Group metals: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum

17.  We are concerned that much of the Government's response to this inquiry focussed on rare earth elements when there are clearly a number of other strategic metals that are important to the UK. Furthermore, we are concerned by the interchangeable usage and confusion of the terms rare earth element (REE) and strategic metal. In order to ensure the formulation of appropriate policy and support for UK metals users, the Government must use clear terminology. In our view strategically important metals comprise the rare earth elements, the platinum group elements and other main group elements of importance to the UK, such as those identified in Table 1. The rare earth elements are only one very specific group of metals, therefore the term "rare earths" must not be used to describe all of the above.

How important are strategic metals to the UK?

18.  Having defined strategic metals the next question is how important are they to the UK. Dr Jonathan Di John, Lecturer in Political Economy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, explained why the UK economy was not as reliant on strategic metals as some:

Countries that use these metals more intensively, such as Japan and Germany, are more vulnerable, because if you look at the industrial structure of those countries they are much more intensive users than the UK.[22]

19.  This was a view echoed by Nicholas Morely, Director of Sustainable Innovation at the sustainability consultancy, Oakdene Hollins.[23] Others took a different view. Major manufacturing companies in the UK rely on strategic metals as raw materials in their products and the view of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) was that "the UK is as vulnerable as other countries, e.g. Japan, the USA and those in the EU that have advanced technology industries".[24] The Minor Metals Trade Association (MMTA) stated that "the UK is one of the world's leaders of advanced technologies that consume [strategic metals]".[25]

20.  Key manufacturing sectors in the UK rely on a range of metals. Jet engine manufacture requires about 40 different metals.[26] The automotive industry requires a number of strategic metals: for example, the UK is a world leader in the manufacture and development of catalytic converters, which require Platinum Group metals.[27] We also heard from the Aerospace and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network that aerospace and defence manufacturing sectors depend on a number of strategic metals, as do manufacturers of high-grade alloys of steel.[28]

21.  The Government has acknowledged the importance of some strategic metals to its future plans for the UK:

Rare earth elements [...] are integral to the transition to a low carbon manufacturing economy and are also important to other key UK industry sectors such as transport, defence and security. A stable supply will be important for achieving the transition to a green economy, securing green growth and re-balancing the economy towards high value-added manufacturing.[29]

22.  Research Councils UK (RCUK) concurred:

The technology required to deliver the government's plans to build a "green manufacturing" sector e.g. solar cells, depends on the availability of some strategically important metals.[30]

RCUK added that "there is an enormous projected growth in the demand for lithium for electric vehicle batteries, including Nissan's plans to manufacture them in the UK".[31]

23.  Dr Bernie Rickinson, Chief Executive of IOM3, stated that "there are a number of materials that underpin wealth for the UK and strategy for the Government that really need evaluating".[32]

24.  There is some disagreement about the vulnerability of the UK to metal shortages, especially in comparison to more intensive users such as Japan and the USA. However, there are important sectors of the UK economy that already rely upon a wide range of metals at stable prices. Furthermore, a stable supply of metals will be important in the transition to a low carbon economy. We are pleased that the Government recognises the importance of metals to the green economy, securing green growth and re-balancing the economy towards high value-added manufacturing.

Metal management

25.  Having accepted that strategically important metals have a vital part to play in the future of the UK economy, we considered what role the Government should have in ensuring and managing supplies of these metals.


26.  Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), stated:

We believe that [Defra's] job, primarily, is to provide information to the private sector as to whether some of these resources are rare, are getting rarer and whether there are issues such as price volatility, et cetera.[33]

27.  This was the aim of the recent Defra report, Review of the Future Resource Risks Faced by UK Business and an Assessment of Future Viability, but in the report's own words, "this project marks a beginning rather than an end".[34] The Defra report stated that:

Government and UK business would benefit from the development of a shared evidence base on resource issues [...] The development of a shared database would also help to develop business and government understanding of resource risks in the future. Doing so would facilitate partnership working between the two parties to find solutions to the benefit of both.[35]

28.  When asked if there were plans within Defra to repeat and expand the work on risks to resources, Professor Watson replied:

Whether we will do exactly this study again or not, I do not know, but it is an issue that we will keep a watching brief on, along with the EU, so that we can continuously update what the needs of our British industry are and we can advise them as to what we know about resource scarcity.[36]

29.  However, despite this and other recent reports on resources Dr Mike Pitts, from the Industry Technology Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), was concerned about a lack of information on metal resources:

One of the things that companies would like the most [...] is some understanding of what material will be critical in future, because they get surprised sometimes by the changes in availability [...] good quality information is what [UK companies] need to [help them] know what might surprise them in the future [...] 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.[37]

Dr Rickinson, IOM3, added that he thought it was timely for a "re-audit [...] and an in-depth analysis of those materials in the broadest sense that are important for the UK economy".[38] RCUK stated that "the UK currently has a world-class capability to monitor and analyse global mineral production, consumption, trade and reserves".[39]


30.  While acknowledging the role of Defra in providing information on resource management, Professor Watson was not clear whether Defra had formal responsibility to decide when a metal becomes strategically important to the UK.[40]

31.  Tony Hartwell, Knowledge Transfer Manager of the ESKTN, pointed out that:

There is not really a central agency in the UK that is responsible for managing resource inputs into the UK. So there is not one department that is responsible for that. Maybe that is something we could consider [...] it would make sense to have an agency for materials.[41]

32.  Responsibility for metals supply is not the exclusive responsibility of Defra. We established that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) shared the work. We therefore explored how coordinated the responsibilities for strategic metals were within Government. Professor Watson, Defra, responded to the suggestion that there ought to be a single public body responsible for providing information on metals and resources that:

Clearly, we need to be joined up. The private sector needs to be informed, and we need to be informed by the private sector as to what they see their resource needs are likely to be now and in the future as they see whole new product lines coming on base. We, in the Government, ought to be able to make sure that we can at least provide information to them as to whether there is either scarcity or a question of access and price volatility.[42]

33.  We were particularly concerned about the impact of metal supply risks to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The Minister stated that "so far, BIS is not aware of this being a particular issue affecting SMEs".[43] However, the Defra report acknowledged that:

While […] larger organisations and companies are aware of the resource risks […] the awareness of SMEs has not been gauged. Engaging with SMEs and raising their awareness is important as a lack of information could leave them unprepared for resource supply issues, potentially affecting the efficiency of the whole supply chain to which they belong, as well as their own profitability.[44]

34.  We conclude that it would be beneficial to industry if the Government were to clarify which departments have responsibility for strategic metals. The Government acknowledged its role to provide resource information to the private sector: it is reasonable to expect that this information include which metals are of strategic importance to the UK. We seek clarification on which department decides which metals are of strategic importance to the UK, which department provides high-quality information on resources, how regularly this information is updated and how this information is shared across Government and disseminated to businesses. We agree with the conclusion in the recent Defra report on resource risks that a shared database would develop business and Government understanding of resource risks in the future. We invite the Government to set out a timetable for developing such a database and explain what arrangements would be made for publishing all or part of it.


35.  While strategic metals were the focus of this inquiry, many of the written submissions we received highlighted the need to investigate the importance of non-metallic elements that are crucial inputs to various sectors. For example, Dr Pitts, RSC, told us about the finite nature of helium and its importance in medical imaging:

we are losing [helium] irreversibly from the atmosphere. That is the only element we are going to definitely run out of at some point in the future. [...] If there were no liquid helium, it would be very hard to use MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] scanners.[45]

Another example brought to our attention was phosphorus.[46]

36.  We note the strategic importance of certain non-metals and as it is outside of the scope of this inquiry, we may choose to return to this in the future. However, in responding to this report. we invite the Government to explain how it will ameliorate the risks posed by the potential scarcity of helium.

7   Q 10 [Dr Rickinson] Back

8   "Ten years to save the touchscreen", New Scientist, 27 October 2010  Back

9   Q 10 [Dr Rickinson] Back

10   Ev w4 [University of Strathclyde and University of Oxford] Back

11   EC Raw Materials Supply Group, Critical Raw Materials for the EU, July 2010; US Department of Energy, Critical Materials Strategy, December 2010 Back

12   Ev 47, para 6 Back

13   Ev 52, para 5 Back

14   Qq 2-6, 35-37 Back

15   See, for example: Qq 166-68 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP]. Back

16   Ev 39, paras 8-43 Back

17   This is as defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Some definitions also include the Actinide series. Back

18   "Rare Earths: Elemental Needs of the Clean-Energy Economy", Scientific American, 13 October 2010 Back

19   AEA Technology, Defra, Review of the Future Resource Risks Faced by UK Business and an Assessment of Future Viability, January 2011, p 11; Oakdene Hollins, Resource Efficiency KTN, Material Security: Ensuring Resource Availability for the UK Economy, March 2008; EC Raw Materials Supply Group, Critical Raw Materials for the EU, July 2010; US Department of Energy, Critical Materials Strategy, December 2010 Back

20   Q 167 Back

21   EC Raw Materials Supply Group, Critical Raw Materials for the EU, July 2010, p6 Back

22   Q 80 Back

23   Ev w2, para 2.1 Back

24   Ev 44, para 2.2.1 Back

25   Ev 69, para 1 Back

26   Q 82 [Mr Swindon] Back

27   Ev w30, para 18 [Research Councils UK] Back

28   Ev w10 Back

29   Ev 39, para 8 [BIS] Back

30   Ev w30, para 18 Back

31   As above Back

32   Q 10 Back

33   Q 109 Back

34   AEA Technology, Defra, Review of the Future Resource Risks Faced by UK Business and an Assessment of Future Viability, January 2011, p 24 Back

35   AEA Technology, Defra, Review of the Future Resource Risks Faced by UK Business and an Assessment of Future Viability, January 2011, p 11 Back

36   Q 109 Back

37   Qq 14, 32 Back

38   Q 18 Back

39   Ev w30, para 16 Back

40   Qq 114, 122 Back

41   Qq 39-40 Back

42   Q 123 Back

43   Q 155 Back

44   AEA Technology, Defra, Review of the Future Resource Risks Faced by UK Business and an Assessment of Future Viability, January 2011, p 11 Back

45   Qq 6, 10 Back

46   Ev 52, para 5 [Geological Society of London] and Ev 57, para 4 [Royal Society of Chemistry] Back

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Prepared 17 May 2011