Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

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 resources.
    • 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

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 Councils:

  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
  • 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 and minerals[1], [2], [3], [4] 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[5] 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[6],[7].

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 their formation.
  • (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.

Environmental Considerations

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[8]. This should be exercised in conjunction with other EU member states, the US and Japan in order to forecast future security of supply challenges.

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 or restriction.

18. There have been and will be many important technological developments which incorporate strategically important metals, for example:

  • 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 metals.

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.

Safeguarding Supply

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[9].

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.

Ethical Production

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[10] 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 Waste Management[11]. 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[12] 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)[13].

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 devices.

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" for recycling.

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[14] 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[15] 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 UK-Japan Symposium on Green Manufacturing and Eco-innovation[16] in June 2010, which discussed the future growth area of "urban mining"[17] - 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 metals.

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.

Annex 1

Raw material 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

Annex 2

UK imports
EU32 total imports
Commodity£ thousand TonnesTonnes
Antimony7,2442,552 102,171
Beryllium2,59339 n/a
Cobalt145,1175,533 91,137
Galliumn/an/a n/a
Germanium4001 n/a
Indiumn/an/a n/a
Lithium3,5681,002 33,211
Niobium6,975154 154
Platinum Group Metals1,517,602 1,48515,566
Rare Earths10,6692,508 45,428
RheniumIncluded with Niobium  n/a
Tantalum8,443161 885
Tungsten47,8153,026 21,874

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[19], platinum[20] and cobalt[21]

Research Councils UK

17 December 2010

1   European Commission (2010) Critical Raw Materials for the EU. Report of the ad-hoc working group on defining critical raw materials. Back

2   National Research Council (2008) Minerals, Critical Minerals and the US Economy. National Academies Press, Washington. Back

3   Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry Japan (2008) Guidelines for securing national resources. Back

4   Oakdene Hollins (2008) Material security for the UK economy. Report for DBIS (Technology Strategy Board) Back

5 Back

6   The Principal Rare Earth Elements Deposits of the United States-A Summary of Domestic Deposits and a Global Perspective By Keith R. Long, Bradley S. Van Gosen, Nora K. Foley, and Daniel Cordier US Department of the Interior/ US Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5220 Nov 17 2010. Back

7 Back

8   British Geological Survey (2010) Mineral Statistics home page: Back

9   Ernst and Young (2010) Material risk: Access to technology minerals.,_Sept_2010/$FILE/Material%20risk_final.pdf Back

10 Back

11 Back

12 Back

13   Mineral Products Association (2009) Sustainable development report Back

14 Back

15  Back

16 Back

17  Back

18   Source: BGS UK Minerals Yearbook 2009, BGS European Mineral Statistics 2003-2008, BGS World Mineral Production 2004-2008 (see HTTP://WWW.BGS.AC.UK/MINERALSUK/STATISTICS/HOME.HTML). Back

19   BGS (2010) Rare Earth Elements Mineral Commodity Profile (see Back

20   BGS (2009) Platinum Group Metals Commodity Profile (see Back

21   BGS (2008) Cobalt Mineral Commodity Profile (see Back

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Prepared 17 May 2011