Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by The Cobalt Development Institute (SIM 16)

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?

CDI Comment

With regard to cobalt only, the industry does not see this as an issue. The global production of cobalt has consistently increased for the past 20-years and more recently several new projects have come on stream or are about to come on stream, for example FreeportMcMorans's Tenke Fungurume project in DRC and Sherritt International's Ambatovy project in Madagascar. The cobalt market is well supplied with refined and raw material for the foreseeable future. In fact a recent report from CRU Strategies suggests that we are likely entering a phase of oversupply of cobalt for the next five years. The USGS estimates that global cobalt reserves are over seven million tonnes and in the longer term there is also the possibility of mining deep sea mineralised nodules where the resource has been calculated to be around one billion tonnes. Nautilus Mining are just embarking upon the first project of this type and so this source of cobalt (and many other minerals) could become reality on the longer term.

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?

CDI Comment

The UK is an important user of cobalt and it affects a broad range of industries from superalloys (aerospace and land based gas turbines; hard wearing castings in renewable energy applications), catalysts (clean fuel technology and removal of harmful gases such as NOx), digital storage (essential in computer processing), industrial cutting tools (high speed steels and hard metals), driers in paints and pigments, rechargeable batteries (mainly Li-ion systems), high strength permanent magnets and many other applications. Cobalt is very much a technology enabling metal and important in achieving the stated ambitions of the Government's "green" agenda. To safeguard the UK's important global position in cobalt the UK could consider creating a "Minister for Metals" and should facilitate and encourage good political relations with important supplier countries as this would facilitate access to raw materials in third countries and should allow ethical issues to be more robustly addressed. Also it is considered appropriate to ensure that regulatory matters, such as REACH, are applied in a proportional and sustainable way. Such measures would ensure the best chance for the UK to enjoy uninterrupted supply with a sustainable and valuable future.

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?

CDI Comment

Much is already being done in this respect and liaison with bodies such as EUROMETAUX would most helpful in obtaining an industry perspective as recycling is an important aspect of sustainability. Resource efficiency is key for a sustainable future and the CDI believes it is important to facilitate the production and import of cobalt as well encouraging recycling. Knowledge of the sector and effective supply chain management are key here.

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?

CDI Comment

It is notoriously difficult to substitute cobalt without suffering serious reductions in efficiency and or performance. In the catalyst sector this is particularly apparent as well as for high performance alloys and in other technology enabling processes. If substitution provided enhanced characteristics or better economy then industry would automatically do this. With cobalt it is not appropriate just to talk about substitution as a means to an end as this could cause serious economic damage to the sector and at the same time cause a reduction is efficiency and effectiveness in certain important processes and applications.

5. What opportunities are there to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substituting strategically important metals?

CDI Comment

The UK should work to promote good governance, capacity-building and transparency in relation to the extractive industries in developing countries and promoting sustainable exploration and extraction within and outside the UK and EU. The CDI believes that closer co-operation with the African region in general - and the DRC in particular - is needed to ensure that access to essential raw materials by UK companies is facilitated and safeguarded. The EU currently has a Raw Materials Initiative underway which is examining this question. The issues relating to raw materials is complicated and the CDI does not believe that substitution should be an automatic response to perceived criticality of raw materials, rather it is recommended to look at methods which improve and safeguard raw material supply for UK industry.

The Cobalt Development Institute

17 December 2010

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Prepared 17 May 2011