Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by G R Chapman (SIM 01)

I worked for 30 years in the British Geological Survey, chiefly on the DTI-funded Minerals Intelligence Programme. I advised the DTI on, inter alia, the strategic stockpile (1983-1996) and was latterly an accredited NATO expert advising that organization's Industrial Policy Committee on raw materials supply.

GENERAL REMARKS

  • It is important that the Committee should give sufficient weight to the economic and geopolitical aspects of these issues and not be too engrossed in scientific and technological aspects.
  • The methodology for selecting the metals to be included should be carefully considered and also transparent. Relevant factors differ markedly between different metals.
  • The Committee is right to state that "the exact impact of such a decline [in availability] on UK high technology industries is unclear". Assessing this impact is likely to be the most difficult part of the task.

COMMENTS ON THE COMMITTEE'S TERMS OF REFERENCE

1. Is there a global shortfall etc.

1.1 Historically, global shortfalls have led to upward price movements that in turn lead to increased production. However in the case of minerals and metals new production capacity can take years to bring on stream. Any decision about new capacity is governed by perceptions about the duration of the supply problem.

1.2 For industrial consumers the price of some metals is far less important than reliability of supply.

1.3 Obviously consumers prefer to pay the lowest negotiable prices for raw materials but diversification of supply with a consequent price "penalty" may be thought worthwhile in order to ensure supply.

2. How vulnerable is the UK to etc.

2.1 The USA has kept a stockpile of strategic/critical minerals for several decades, although it is now reduced in scope. It was very costly to maintain.

2.2 HM Government formerly had a small stockpile of strategic minerals. It was set up by the DTI in 1983 and its abolition was then announced in November 1984. In fact the last sales were not made until 1996. The materials concerned were never disclosed by the DTI but in its issue of 30th July 1985 the commercial journal "Metal Bulletin" published estimates for tonnages of certain metals and alloys in the stockpile. The list comprised forms of chromium, cobalt, manganese and vanadium.

2.3 You should also be aware of the House of Lords (1982) Strategic Minerals. Report of the Select Committee on the European Communities. HMSO, London. Although produced twenty-eight years ago, it may be useful to look at the methodology used to reach its conclusions. Essentially this report defined "strategic minerals" on the basis of the twin components of "criticality" and "vulnerability". Criticality was based on the view that the mineral was essential to the national economy. Vulnerability was based on the proportion of domestic consumption, which was imported and the number of overseas supply sources contributing to that supply. The fewer and more unstable the sources the more vulnerable the supply.

3. How desirable, easy and cost-effective to recover and recycle etc.

3.1 I am not aware that there is any difference between "recover" and "recycle" The former is tending to be used by commercial entities as a fashionable catchword.

4. Are there substitutes for those metals etc.

4.1 Substitution lies under similar constraints as investment in new capacity. It may be technically and scientifically feasible, but commercially impossible in the short and medium terms for reasons to do with contractual specifications

5. What opportunities are there to work internationally etc.

5.1 I comment on this question simply to point out that it uses the word "substituting" in the vulgar sense used by football commentators. This word does not mean "replacing" - which is the meaning intended in your document. In football it doesn't matter. In materials science it does.

G R Chapman PhD FGS CGeol

December 2010



 
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Prepared 17 May 2011