Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by The Geological Society of London (SIM 10)

1.  The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences.

2.  We are grateful for the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry. Given its broad scope, we have not attempted to provide detailed information regarding particular strategically important metals, and have focused on general principles. We understand that the British Geological Survey (BGS) is taking a lead role, through NERC, in a coordinated response from the Research Councils. The Minerals Section of BGS constitutes an important component of national capability in this area, as a centre of expertise and as the source of vital strategic data (see for example their UK Minerals Yearbook, and their publication World Mineral Production 2004-2008).

3.  The Geological Society's response has been prepared on the basis of contributions from its Fellows and others, and in particular from the Mineral Deposits Studies Group (MDSG), which is an affiliated specialist group of the Society but includes non-Fellows among its membership.

4.  The Geological Society is currently preparing a public statement on the rare earth elements, which will be aimed both at policy-makers and at interested members of the public, and which we expect to publish in Spring 2011.

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

5.  There is no definitive list of "strategic metals". They are generally taken to include the rare earth elements (REEs), platinum group metals, tantalum, niobium, indium, lithium and tungsten, among others. Some would include more common metals such as tin, not because there is concern over continuity of supply, but because the volumes in which it is used mean that the volatility of its price has significant economic impact. Some non-metallic elements such as phosphorus can also be considered "strategic". More generally, the significant strategic drivers are likely to vary between metals and across different usages. Economic importance is not the only factor - environmental protection, national security and other benefits may also be significant. Particular importance is now quite rightly attached to the resource implications of low carbon energy technologies (more efficient electromagnets for wind turbines, extensive use of photovoltaic panels, catalytic converters in vehicles, etc). The economic and technical barriers to extraction, substitution and recycling of different metals, and in the context of differing uses, vary. In some senses, the supply of all important minerals and other resources (energy, water) is strategically important, and raises the need to weigh economy of use, security of supply and environmental factors, and to make judgments which are hybrids of the technical, social and political.

6.  It is important to distinguish between "reserves" - that is, the known resources in the ground which can be extracted economically using existing technology -and the total physical resources in the Earth's crust. We are confident that known reserves of metals which might be considered strategically important are small compared to the total amount in the ground. The primary constraints to their supply are therefore economic, geographical, legal and technical. Which ore deposits are considered to be "reserves" will depend not only on fixed factors (the geographical distribution and concentration of metals), but also on variable ones - commodity prices (increased prices may make a metal economic to extract at locations where it wasn't before), the discovery of new exploitable resources (which is dependent on research and exploration work), regulatory regimes and improved technology for extraction.

7.  Global metals production levels can also respond to price, but the long lead time from the instigation of an exploration programme by a company to mine production - typically at least 10 years (with success far from certain) - severely restricts market responsiveness, particularly when existing production is concentrated at a few sites. For instance, 95% of global production of REEs is located at a small number of mines in China, although there are known reserves elsewhere, and every prospect of finding more. This leaves the global market vulnerable not only to price changes but also to artificial constraints on supply.

8.  The REEs have similar physical and chemical properties. They tend to occur together in the same deposits, and are difficult to separate. (The same is true of the platinum group metals.) In considering the supply and economics of the REEs, the proportions of particular elements in a deposit is significant. Those in which the level of Heavy REEs (those of higher atomic number) is unusually high tend to be more economic, because they are of lower overall abundance in the Earth's crust than Light REEs, and because they can have lower associated separation and enrichment costs.

9.  Internationally, extraction and processing are associated with significant environmental impacts. These may arise from the nature of the mining process itself (eg some large open-pit mines such as at Bayan Obo, China), the association of metals with radioactive elements (eg REEs with uranium) or toxic pollutants, and refining processes. Standards in some countries have been low - recent attempts to improve them are of course welcome, but may lead to increased prices.

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?

10.  In addition to the UK's dependence on China for REE supply (in common with other countries), we rely almost entirely on the import of other strategic metals used in UK industry. Only very small proportions of strategic metals used in UK industry are produced in the EU (where unfettered availability is most reliable), and many are produced in a limited number of countries. For example, compared to its imports, the EU produces only 1.3% of antimony, 10% of tungsten and no niobium, tantalum, platinum group metals or REEs (BGS European Mineral Statistics 2004-2008). The UK currently has essentially no metalliferous mining activity, despite its historical importance.

11.  There is considerable potential to reduce our vulnerability with regard to some strategic metals through domestic production. We believe that the UK has significant potential reserves of some metals, such as indium and tungsten in south west England. The country remains underexplored by modern mineral exploration methods, due to the lack of current mining activities. However, the UK has the advantage of a world renowned mineral deposits research community, including not only university scientists, but also those in BGS, NERC isotope facilities, and the Mineralogy Department of the Natural History Museum. Their research addresses the formation of metal deposits and developing successful exploration strategies for locating them, coupled with safe, efficient and environmentally sound exploitation of these deposits, and scientists in this field have been active in international scientific bodies (such as the Society of Economic Geologists) and publications. UK leaders of the global industrial community include Dick Sillitoe, a world renowned ore deposit consultant, and Graham Brown, Head of Exploration at Anglo American. Moreover, there is a thriving UK-based mining and exploration industry, which comprises over 15% by market value of the FTSE 100 and around 25% of AIM; in addition London is a key market for emerging mining companies to raise capital, including those active in strategic metals extraction. Companies such as Anglo American and Rio Tinto extensively recruit UK geology graduates.

12.  There is a continuing need for sustained high-quality research in a number of areas. It is essential to the search for new reserves, to improving the efficiency and safety of extraction and processing, and to mitigating and remediating environmental impacts. The geological origins of major deposits of REEs such as Bayan Obo, for instance, have been disputed, but recent research has been resolving some of the uncertainty. Unless we understand the origins of these deposits, we cannot build an effective predictive model to inform the search for new potentially economic deposits, and the assessment of known ones. There is potential also to identify new source mineral species (that is, distinct minerals as characterised by their chemical composition and crystalline structure) beyond the restricted number currently used, which reflect historical practice and the state of existing processing technology - as new extraction and processing technologies emerge, other mineral species may become viable. This depends on an understanding of the nature and behaviour of the complete geodiversity of natural minerals - an area in which the Natural History Museum plays a key national role alongside the universities. There are some claims that it may be possible to extract strategic minerals from the sea floor, or by concentrating them from sea water itself - the high level of UK expertise in oceanography, and the potential marine resources available to us, make this an attractive area of research. It is also vital that appropriate high-quality strategic data are gathered, on UK, EU and global reserves, production and end-uses - an important aspect of BGS's national capability role, which is also of international significance. Some Fellows have expressed the view that this area is relatively neglected by NERC with regard to research funding, and that if the next generation of mineral deposits researchers is not nurtured, the community will lose critical mass and not be self sustaining. Research in this area will not attract talented early career scientists if its funding is uncertain. If our expertise and national capability in this area is not maintained, we are likely to lose out to other countries in term of potential economic benefit, security of supply, and influence over the development of technologies and standards for environmental protection. As well as ensuring sustained funding of research and data gathering, we would urge Government to support the training of geologists at undergraduate and postgraduate level to ensure that this research community continues to thrive.

13.  Government should also address the inconsistency between national mineral supply objectives and local planning policy and practice. There are reserves in the UK which have been identified as economic to exploit, but whose development has been prevented by planning hurdles. With modern mining and extraction techniques coupled with high levels of environmental safety awareness and protection, we believe that it should be possible in most instances to satisfy reasonable concerns as well as to deliver local and national economic benefit. We would be happy to provide details of specific instances if this is of interest to the committee. A further potential legal obstacle under English law is the separation of mineral rights from land ownership.

14.  The current increased focus on the supply and use of strategic metals is welcome. To be of value, it must be sustained. Government should pursue a joined up strategic approach, which recognises the shared and distinct features of the political economy of different metals and applications. Significant effort is being devoted to this matter in other countries. China makes significant and fruitful investment in REE research, for instance at the Baotou Rare Earth Research Institute, and is gaining international acclaim for such work. Not all of it is shared internationally. In the USA, the Mountain Pass mine, which was previously the source of much of the world's REE supply but which closed in 2002, is currently undergoing expansion and modernisation, and is expected to return to production during 2011. REE deposits are also being investigated elsewhere in the USA, as well as in Australia, Canada and South Africa.

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?

15.  The Geological Society is not generally well placed to comment on classical recovery and recycling (that is, from products), nor on the technological development of substitutes. We note the importance of considering the whole product cycle, including recycling, at the design stage (so called "cradle-to-cradle" design), particularly with reference to degradation and dispersal of materials.

16.  A potentially significant future source of strategic metals, in addition to primary ore extraction and the recycling of products, is to extract them from industrial waste materials. For example, a research team at the University of Durham led by Professor Jon Gluyas is taking a novel holistic approach to multiple resource cycles, and delivering highly promising results. If waste material can be used to generate a valuable commodity, so that the "back end" of one resource cycle becomes the "front end" of another, it may be possible both to make net gains in economic and energy efficiency, and reduce overall environmental impacts. They are investigating waste streams such as spent oil shales, fly ash and slags, not only to identify potentially economic metal content (REEs, transition elements and platinum group elements), but also to reuse the waste materials to sequester CO2 (potentially even acting as a net carbon sink), or to create new synthetic materials (for instance, to use as an absorbent and photo-catalyst for the degradation of oil spills at sea). They have shown that the retorting process for generating oil from shale, for example, leaves increased REE concentrations in the residual shale - and that the relative level of enrichment is greater for Heavy REEs (see paragraph 8). While these do not approach the concentrations in primary ores, which are typically five times higher or more, it may be possible to extract these metals economically, given that there are no extraction costs, particularly if in future the processes for extraction of both the oil and REEs can be refined to maximise overall efficiency. There are 100 million tonnes of oil shale spoil heaps in West Lothian, representing a significant potential resource, though not all is available for use under current planning regulations. Such an approach would be of particular value in the context of REEs, where there is currently limited capacity for recycling given their growing use and the relatively small total quantities which exists in products which might be recycled.

17.  The expertise of academic and industrial Earth scientists with regard to assessment and efficient processing of primary metal ores (and of the waste streams from other processes as outlined above) is likely also to be of value in some cases of classical recycling of products.

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?

18.  We note that the use of specific REEs has shifted in some cases over recent years - for example, neodymium has tended to replace samarium in rare earth magnets (neodymium being naturally more abundant). Development of potential substitutes must be informed by their resource implications, including mineral resources. This again depends on our understanding of the full geodiversity of minerals, and on the research underpinning it.

19.  We are not aware of any viable substitutes at present for strategic metals in a number of key technologies - in particular, platinum group metals in catalytic converters, and REEs (particularly neodymium) in supermagnets used in wind turbines and hybrid cars.

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

20.  There is potential for the UK to take a leading role in research into the recovery of strategic metals from the waste streams of other resource cycles, discussed above, and in its development through to industrial application. This could also deliver economic benefit.

21.  The BGS has an excellent track record of disseminating best practice regarding economically and environmentally efficient extraction processes globally, particularly in the developing world, and it is to be hoped that it will be possible to continue this invaluable work in future.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

22.  The Geological Society is delighted that the committee has chosen strategically important metals as the subject of an inquiry, and we hope that the Government will also recognise the need to consider these issues. We would be pleased to discuss further any of the general points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts, should this be of interest.

The Geological Society of London

17 December 2010


 
previous page contents next page


© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 17 May 2011