Written evidence submitted by Research
Councils UK (SIM 13)|
- Much of the concern over physical exhaustion
of geological reserves of strategically important metals is likely
to be misplaced, though there are no grounds for complacency.
- Due to the combination of 100% dependence on
imported supplies, a high concentration of production in relatively
few countries and low substitutability and recycling rates, the
UK is vulnerable to restrictions in supply of some metals.
- New technologies required to develop the Green
Economy will create a new source of demand for some strategically
important metals. To ensure such technologies contribute to the
Green Economy, carbon emissions and other environmental impacts
associated with mining and processing of strategically important
metals should be minimised.
- Scientific research has a critical role to play
in numerous areas including:
- Understanding earth processes and properties
that produce mineral deposits and developing new mineral exploration
technology, both to expand existing reserves and identify new
- Assessing the environmental implications of exploiting
minerals important for the Green Economy, including whether extraction
can be undertaken with a lower carbon footprint.
- Developing alternative or replacement materials
for strategically important metals in products.
- Improving processes for recycling and reuse and
doing more with less.
1. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership
set up to champion the research supported by the seven UK Research
Councils. RCUK was established in 2002 to enable the Councils
to work together more effectively to enhance the overall impact
and effectiveness of their research, training and innovation activities,
contributing to the delivery of the Government's objectives for
science and innovation. Further details are available at www.rcuk.ac.uk.
2. This evidence is submitted by RCUK on behalf of
the Research Councils listed below and represents their independent
views. It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of
the Knowledge and Innovation Group
in the Department for Business, Innovation
and Skills. The submission is made on behalf of the following
- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
- Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
3. NERC comments were provided by the British Geological
Survey, NERC Swindon Office and Professor Louise Heathwaite, NERC
Theme Leader Sustainable Use of Natural Resources (SUNR).
4. Recent studies in the EU, USA, Japan, UK and elsewhere
have attempted to identify the most "critical" metals
so called because of their increasing economic importance and
high risk of supply shortage. Hitherto, global consumption of
critical metals has been relatively small.
5. The NERC British Geological Survey (BGS) has monitored
global metal production and trade for almost 100 years. This knowledge
and experience, together with BGS' active participation in the
recent EC study on defining critical raw materials6 leads
us to suggest the following are considered the most "critical"
strategically important metals: antimony, beryllium, cobalt, gallium,
germanium, indium, lithium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare
earths, rhenium, tantalum, tungsten.
6. Consideration of future demand for these metals
is important, a major source of which will be new technologies
required to develop the green economy (see Annex 1 for examples
of driving technologies for different metals). For example, demand
for gallium in emerging technologies may increase by a factor
of more than 20 between 2006 and 20306. For indium, germanium
and neodymium, the factors are 8, 8 and 7, respectively, over
the same period. This concern is the focus of a proposed £6
million major research programme on "Mineral resources: security
of supply in a changing environment" led by the SUNR
theme for NERC. The focus would be to understand formation processes
of metals important to the green economy and the environmental
implications of their extraction and whether this can be undertaken
with a lower carbon footprint.
7. Industry will make choices to use specific materials
for a particular application, device or product, based upon many
factors - for example prior experience, availability, performance
and cost. There is a strong role for materials science and engineering
researchers to expand the options available to companies. The
two areas where research has a critical role (often supported
through EPSRC) are:
- Replacement materials - developing alternative
materials with the required characteristics and then demonstrating
performance in use.
- Processes for recycling and reuse - in order
to recover strategically important materials, reduce the need
for primary extraction of materials or achieve other environmental
benefit (eg energy reduction).
8. Though outside the scope of this Inquiry, there
is concern over the shortage of Helium 3 and 4 used in neutron
detectors such as the STFC ISIS facility and in MRI scanners in
hospitals. This is a potential limitation for future research
and clinical applications, particularly related to lung imaging.
STFC scientists and engineers are actively developing alternative
technologies to overcome the Helium 3 shortage.
Question 1. Is there a global shortfall in the
supply and availability of strategically important metals essential
to the production of advanced technology in the UK?
Physical Availability of Metals
9. Before considering UK supply, it is necessary
to address the generic issue of physical availability of metals
in the Earth's crust. The reality is that despite increasing metal
production over the past 50 years, reserve levels have remained
largely unchanged7. Indeed, recent reports suggest there is ample
supply of rare earth metals in US deposits,.
10. Concerns regarding physical exhaustion of metals
may be based on an over-simplistic view of the relationship between
reserves and consumption (ie number of years supply remaining
equals reserves divided by annual consumption). Metals of which
we know the precise location, tonnage and which we can extract
economically with existing technology - known as "reserves"
- are tiny in comparison to the total amount. Consumption and
reserves change continually in response to a) scientific advances
and b) market forces, as outlined below.
- (a) Scientific advances - As our scientific
understanding improves, we can replenish reserves from previously
undiscovered resources. For example, mineral deposit types which
were largely unknown 50 years ago (such as porphyry deposits which
are now the principal sources of copper, molybdenum and rhenium)
contribute significantly to global reserves. These were discovered
and developed largely as a result of improved understanding of
- (b) Market forces - Market forces influence
reserve size as most metals occur in graded deposits: if prices
rise, reserves will extend to include lower grade ore; if prices
fall, reserves will contract to include only higher grade material.
11. Although physical exhaustion of primary metal
supply is very unlikely, there are no grounds for complacency.
Our knowledge of transport and concentration processes of many
strategically important metals is very poor; consequently collaborative
science is vital in predicting and finding deposits of strategically
important metals. Through its "Metals and Minerals for Environmental
Technology" project, BGS carries out research in the UK and
overseas, in conjunction with academia and industry, on the Earth
processes and properties that produce mineral deposits, on novel
resources for environmental technology (initially focusing on
rare earths) and on new mineral exploration technology.
12. The environmental costs of mineral resource extraction,
processing and use present a long term threat to UK supply. It
is critically important to understand how to decarbonise the extraction
process. Around 3% of total global energy demand is used solely
to crush rock for mineral extraction; carbon emitted as a consequence
represents a significant environmental limit to our resource use.
Major research and innovation is required in order to break the
current link between metal use and greenhouse gas emissions.
13. Current examples of low carbon resource extraction
technology include in-situ leach mining (eg of uranium) and microbial
bio-leaching (eg of copper and nickel) from extracted ores. As
long as the environmental impact can be minimised, such processes
may significantly extend the resource base by allowing working
of previously uneconomic ore types and grades.
14. The proposed NERC SUNR programme on "Mineral
Resources" (see paragraph 6) will (if funded), support research
designed to minimise the carbon and environmental footprint of
future use of mineral resources.
Resource Distribution and Geopolitics
15. Uneven resource distribution and geopolitics
present threats to UK supply. Metal deposits are unevenly distributed
across the globe and patterns of supply and demand shift continually.
There is rapidly increasing demand from emerging economies such
as Brazil, Russia, India and China.
16. The likelihood is that tensions over resources
will increase over the next few years. The UK currently has a
world-class capability to monitor and analyse global mineral production,
consumption, trade and reserves.
This should be exercised in conjunction with other EU member states,
the US and Japan in order to forecast future security of supply
Question 2. How vulnerable is the UK to a potential
decline or restriction in the supply of strategically important
metals? What should the Government be doing to safeguard against
this and to ensure supplies are produced ethically?
UK Imports & Reliance
17. The table in Annex 2 shows data on imports of
strategically important metals into the UK and, for comparison,
into the EU 32. Note that both the UK and the EU are currently
100% dependant for supply of these metals, as such, the UK is
vulnerable to decline or restriction in their supply. A major
deficiency in these figures is that they do not show imports embodied
in finished and semi-finished goods (such as cobalt and lithium
contained in rechargeable batteries). To our knowledge no reliable
statistical data exists on this and therefore it is difficult
to quantitatively assess our overall vulnerability to decline
18. There have been and will be many important technological
developments which incorporate strategically important metals,
- The UK is a world leader in the manufacture of
auto-catalysts based on platinum group metals imported from South
Africa and Russia. Import levels and consequent vulnerabilities
in the EU are even greater, and pose a significant risk to UK
manufacturers and consumers who import vital components and finished
goods from elsewhere in Europe.
- 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.
- The technology required to deliver the government's
plans to build a "green manufacturing" sector eg solar
cells, depends on the availability of some strategically important
19. Research Council funding (via EPSRC) has facilitated
the development of new materials and devices that rely on the
inclusion of strategically important metals to deliver their desired
properties. Advances have had large and varied impacts on our
economy and society. These include key advances in the electronics
industry, developments of new methods for energy generation, conversion
and storage and significantly improved construction and engineering
applications of newly created alloys.
20. Shortages in the supply of Rare Earths and other
strategically important materials would have a negative impact
on the development of key UK-based large scientific facilities,
such as Diamond and ISIS, operated by STFC and its partners, as
well in other areas eg the development of the next generation
of solar cells.
21. Some strategically important metals are derived
as by-products (or coupled products) from the extraction of "carrier
metals" from ores in which they present in low concentrations.
Examples include gallium (found in aluminium ore) and germanium
(found in zinc ore). Production from these ore types is predominantly
driven by demand for the carrier metal. This factor may constrain
any possible increase in production of the coupled product should
demand increase independently of the carrier metal.
22. In general, we would subscribe to the recommendations
made in the recent EU Critical Raw Materials report7 as a way
forward in addressing potential decline or restriction in supply.
Recommendations include better knowledge of indigenous resources,
improved and consistent statistics on mass flows, proactive trade
policy with regard to strategically important metals (this needs
to be carried out at the EU level in order to achieve sufficient
critical mass when negotiating with other powerful trading groups)
and policies to encourage recycling, reuse and resource efficiency.
It should be noted however, this report is primarily concerned
with access to raw materials and not to understanding their life
cycle or implications of use on the environment.
23. An emerging alternative approach to maintaining
supply is collaboration or even vertical integration of mining
companies and industrial consumers. This provides certainty for
the metal producers and security of supply for manufacturers.
24. In the past, stockpiling has been used by governments
as a mechanism to reduce vulnerability. Whilst this approach has
been seen as expensive and ineffective, some countries and private
companies retain stockpiles.
25. The Research Councils engage with forums such
as the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), the Chemistry
Innovation KTN and the Inter-Departmental Materials Coordination
(IMC) group - a cross government group led by the Department of
Business, Innovation and Skills and involving DEFRA, MoD, NPL,
the Technology Strategy Board and other partners. These interactions
allow us to feed in relevant information about current research
and new developments and thus to develop a strategic approach
to addressing the issue.
26. Wealth released as a result of minerals extraction
is simultaneously an opportunity and a threat to the development
prospects of a country. It is likely that the bulk of primary
supply of strategically important metals will come from the developing
world. Although mineral endowments should enable poorer countries
to embark on a path to economic development, the evidence shows
that resource- rich developing countries often move in the opposite
direction toward poverty and instability.
27. Inter-governmental agreements (such as the UK-led
Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) and the rise of
corporate responsibility initiatives amongst the western mining
sector (such as the Global Mining Initiative) have made major
advances in improving the social and environmental impact of mining
in the developing world. A serious challenge to this improvement
is the rise of mining enterprises based in large emerging economies,
but operating word-wide, which can adhere to different ethical
standards to those established in developed economies.
28. Although formalised extraction by large enterprises
is the familiar face of mining in the west, informal artisanal
and small-scale mining (ASM) is a major extractive activity in
the developing world. Of the listed critical metals, only tantalum-niobium
(sometimes known as "coltan") is produced in any quantity
by ASM. The long-running civil war in the Congo is, in part, caused
by conflict over control small-scale coltan mines. Millions of
people worldwide are economically dependent on ASM and the social,
environmental and economic issues associated with ASM pose a considerable
developmental challenge. Aid donors (including the UK) must recognise
and accept the importance of ASM as a livelihood for many poor
people and work with governments and NGOs in developing countries
to improve the social and environmental performance of this sector.
Question 3. How desirable, easy and cost-effective
is it to recover and recycle metals from discarded products? How
can this be encouraged? Where recycling currently takes place,
what arrangements need to be in place to ensure it is done cost-effectively,
safely and ethically?
29. Recycling, substitution and resource efficiency
are hugely important in meeting the challenge of burgeoning demand
and should be the focus of future efforts towards the sustainable
use of natural resources.
30. Research councils are investing in research looking
at the long-term sustainable use of materials:
- NERC are proposing a major £15 million initiative
on Resource Recovery from Waste led by the SUNR and the Environment,
Pollution and Human Health
science themes, and involving other Research Councils.
- As part of the Sustainable Urban Environment
programme EPSRC funded a consortium led by the University of Southampton
to investigate Strategies and Technologies for Sustainable Urban
This research looked to improve our understanding of waste treatment
and material/energy recovery and our understanding of resource
and energy flows through and within urban environments.
- The EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing
in Liquid Metal Engineering
at Brunel University is investigating more cost-effective and
sustainable processes for metal engineering. If successful this
research will dramatically reduce the energy consumption, carbon
footprint and overall environmental impact of the metal-casting
industry. Long term the knowledge gained from this funding could
be applied to strategically important metals.
- EPSRC plans a major focus within its next Delivery
Plan on sustainable manufacturing. This will address a range of
sustainability challenges, including energy and resource efficient
manufacturing, materials reprocessing and sustainable design approaches.
Limits to Recycled Supply
31. In general, the free market has so far been ineffective
in encouraging recycling and resource efficiency. Policy and related
economic instruments have proved more effective. For example,
the Aggregates Levy has contributed significantly to the UK's
high level of aggregates (ie crushed stone, sand and gravel) recycling
(second highest in Europe).
32. For the foreseeable future, the vast bulk of
our requirements for strategically important metals will have
to be sourced from primary resources within the crust. The upper
limit on what is available for recycling is determined by what
comes back from society; the ceiling on this is what we consumed
40 to 60 years ago. By way of illustration, global consumption
of copper in 1970 was approximately eight million tonnes per annum.
Five million tonnes was from mining, with three million tonnes
from recycling. In 2008 global copper consumption was about 24
million tonnes, of which eight million tonnes are derived from
recycling, with the remaining 16 million tonnes from primary production.
33. For most other metals recycling provides only
10-20% of demand, although work by UNEP12 and research carried
out as part of the recent European Raw Materials Initiative7
suggests that recycling rates for elements such as Gallium,
Indium, Tantalum and Rare Earths are currently less than 1%. Even
if recycling rates for these materials were much higher, we must
recognise that the strategically important metal "resource"
currently residing in the anthropogenic environment is very small
compared to that needed to meet predicted demand from manufacturers
of electric vehicles, wind generators, solar panels and digital
34. Assessing the further potential contribution
of recycling to meeting demand within the UK is hampered by lack
of figures on imports of strategically important metals contained
in finished and semi-finished goods (see paragraph 17). This makes
it difficult to quantify the amount of strategically important
metals residing in society which may become available as a "resource"
Question 4. Are there substitutes for those metals
that are in decline in technological products manufactured in
the UK? How can these substitutes be more widely applied?
35. When developing new materials and devices researchers
need to consider:
- If strategically important metals are essential
to provide the required properties.
- If there are alternative materials that will
display the same properties.
- What the minimum level of the required element
is that will allow the same properties to be exhibited.
- What the environmental implications of metal
use are and how this will change in the future; whether environmental
constraints might limit future use of minerals.
- The future supply of materials and whether developing
a new material or device with significant quantities of strategically
important metals is viable.
- The end of life and how to recapture, reuse or
recycle strategically important metals.
36. These thought processes are already evident in
projects across the RCUK portfolio. Much of this research is carried
out in partnership with manufacturers, material users and waste
management organisations to tackle these challenges.
37. EPSRC is currently funding research at the Universities
of Oxford, Liverpool and Salford
to develop new advanced alloys for use in nuclear fission and
fusion applications. The researchers have considered the range
of elements available to them taking into account the properties
required, including low activity rates from the alloys used. This
decision making process has ruled out some strategically important
metals in part due to their low natural abundance.
38. In the area of catalysis, EPSRC funded researchers
at the University of Bath
are looking at ways of developing catalysts based on group II
elements. These would be more environmentally benign and place
less demand on the world's strategically important resources.
39. However, it should be acknowledged that in many
instances substitution is not a viable option thus the way forward
is appropriate life cycle thinking combined with research stimulus
to ensure the environmental costs - and in particular the carbon
costs - are minimised.
Question 5. What opportunities are there to work
internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and
substituting strategically important metals?
40. EPSRC and its researchers are engaging with this
issue on an international level. One recent example is from a
on Green Manufacturing and Eco-innovation
in June 2010, which discussed the future growth area of "urban
- how we can treat manufacturing products accumulated as waste
as a key resource for the future. EPSRC is also supporting an
expert visit to Japan in January 2011 on "sustainable manufacturing"
led by Professor Mike Gregory of the Institute for Manufacturing,
University of Cambridge.
41. NERC are proposing leading a major research programme
on Resource Recovery from Waste (see paragraph 30).
42. The Research Councils put forward key members
of the academic community to participate in international committees
with a focus on materials. Professor Neil Alford from Imperial
College London sits on the European Materials Advisory Panel (MatSEEC).
This is an independent science-based expert committee which provides
a forum to discuss challenges at an international level and develops
Forward Look reports and roadmaps for the different fields of
materials science. MatSEEC could be an important future route
for international engagement on issues around strategically important
43. A new EC Communication on raw materials will
be published in late January 2011. It is anticipated that this
will lead to significant research opportunities in this field
as part of FP7/ FP8.
STRATEGICALLY IMPORTANT METALS AND THEIR
DRIVING EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
||Emerging technologies |
|Antimony ||Micro capacitors
|Cobalt ||Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels
|Gallium ||Thin layer photovoltaics, Integrated Circuits, White LED
|Germanium ||Fibre optic cable, Infrared optical technologies
|Indium ||Displays, thin layer photovoltaics
|Niobium ||Micro capacitors, ferroalloys
|Platinum ||Fuel cells, catalysts
|Tantalum ||Micro capacitors, medical technology
|Titanium ||Seawater desalination, implants
Nb Table adapted from Table 5, page 43 of the Critical raw materials
for the EU report.6
IMPORTS OF CRITICAL METALS INTO THE UK AND THE EU 32 IN
||EU32 total imports|
|Platinum Group Metals||1,517,602
|Rhenium||Included with Niobium
Note: The above table was provided by BGS. BGS is a global leader
in the compilation and publication of annual data23 on production
and trade of metals and mineral commodities for UK, EU and the
world. It has carried out this function since 1913. It also provides
analysis and advice on global minerals issues. This includes publication
of commodity profiles on a range of strategically important metals
including rare earths,
platinum and cobalt
Research Councils UK
17 December 2010
European Commission (2010) Critical Raw Materials for the EU.
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National Research Council (2008) Minerals, Critical Minerals and
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Oakdene Hollins (2008) Material security for the UK economy. Report
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Summary of Domestic Deposits and a Global Perspective By Keith
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US Department of the Interior/ US Geological Survey Scientific
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2003-2008, BGS World Mineral Production 2004-2008 (see HTTP://WWW.BGS.AC.UK/MINERALSUK/STATISTICS/HOME.HTML). Back
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