Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) (SIM 03)

1. OVERVIEW

The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) is in broad agreement with the Terms of Reference defined, in the form of five questions, put forward by the Parliamentary S&T Committee.

Comments on each of the Terms of Reference / Questions are given below. It is suggested that, before the answers to the five questions can be delivered with sufficient confidence to define actions, additional information is likely to be needed and discussions need to be initiated with overseas supply chain partners. IOM3 is willing and able to assist with the gathering of the required information from its international network and to facilitate the discussions.

2. TERMS OF REFERENCE

2.1  Is there a global shortfall in the supply and availability of strategically important metals essentials to the production of advanced technology in the UK?

Given the downturn in the global economy there is probably not an immediate shortfall. However, the concentration of production of certain materials, in particular rare earth metals, in China, means that many industries in the UK are extremely vulnerable. The recent incident where China cut off supplies to Japan in response to a maritime incident is an illustration of the potential problems.

2.2  How vulnerable is the UK to a potential decline or restriction of supply of strategically important metals? What should the Government be doing to safeguard against this and to ensure supplies are produced ethically?

It is recommended that these two questions should be separated in the Terms of Reference.

2.2.1 Vulnerability - The UK is as vulnerable as other countries, eg Japan, the USA and those in the EU that have advanced technology industries which depend on supplies of materials which are supplied by a single country.

2.2.2 Safeguards - The UK could in collaboration with international partners encourage and co-fund the re-opening of mines that were recently closed because of low cost competition from China. The UK could also, in collaboration with partners in Europe, establish facilities for the ethical recycling of discarded products that contain extractable strategic metals. Both options require detailed studies to determine the viable options in terms of locations and investment.

2.3  How desirable, easy and cost effective is it to recover and recycle metals from discarded products? How can this be encouraged? Where recycling takes place, what arrangements need to be in place to ensure it is done cost- effectively, safely and ethically?

For the mature metals sectors there is a well developed recycling infrastructure which, because of the intrinsic value of the metals, is economically, highly viable. Metals recycling in the automotive, construction sectors are highly advanced (levels > 90 % for some metals), domestic waste stream management strategies are also improving metals recycling from packaging. Electrical goods are now subject to the WEEE directives and are increasing being recycled. The challenges for increased metals recycling are based around consumer behaviour, separation technologies and also by the design for dismantling of techniques which are now increasingly common in product design.

The recycling industries' business models are similar to any mainstream businesses, some  operating with ISO9001 and or ISO 14001. All will be subject to the usual H&S,  COSHH and Environmental regulations. Some will have fully developed CSR policies in line with increasing customer interest.

High technology industries rely on materials that are very precisely defined in terms of composition and processing. Recycled materials of unknown provenance are not attractive alternatives. A new industry could be created which recycles safely and ethically the valuable strategic materials contained in junked electronic products. More details studies are needed to define the cost effectiveness of closely controlled recycling including design for recycling.

2.4  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?

Substitution is almost always difficult and expensive, not least because of the long term investment in the refinement and testing of the incumbent materials. Hence substitution costs are often less dependent on the relative raw material costs than on the demonstration of equivalent performance in the end product. In addition many products would need to re-designed to accommodate the substitute material

In many electronic the products the unique properties eg of neodymium magnets have enable the minaturisation of many end products and substitutes are not obvious.

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

International collaboration is essential if any effective solution is to be found to the current threat. The Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining is uniquely placed through it UK and International Membership to facilitate discussions and is willing to do so.

3. CONCLUSION

In the long term, concerted action, such as plans to re-open mines and recycle materials more effectively, by countries threatened by supply problems of strategically important materials, is needed to secure a less vulnerable supply chain for the advanced technology industries in the UK and other countries.

Norman Waterman FIMMM
Chairman External Affairs Group
IOM3

Louis Brimacombe
Chairman Sustainability Group
IOM3

14 December 2010


 
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Prepared 17 May 2011