Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) (SIM 17)

1.  The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee's consultation on strategically important metals (SIMs).

2.  The RSC is the largest organisation in Europe for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of 46,000 members worldwide and an internationally acclaimed publishing business, its activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public.

3.  This document represents the views of the RSC. The RSC has a duty under its Royal Charter "to serve the public interest" by acting in an independent advisory capacity, and it is in this spirit that this submission is made.

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

4.  While this document addresses the SIMs highlighted by the committee, the Government's latest procurement policy should expand to include other strategically important elements of the periodic table, such as phosphorus and helium.

5.  The total stock of metal-containing minerals in the Earth's crust is finite, but it is also extremely large. A "reserve" is the stock of metal for which the location and tonnage is known and which can be extracted economically using existing technology. Reserves typically represent a small fraction of the total amount in the Earth's crust. Current concern regarding access to SIMs is partly based on published reserves—which, in turn, is based on best estimates of the accessible deposits—together with the rate at which they are being consumed and the threat of reduced supply. Lithium reserves, for example, are estimated to be depleted in 45 years, indium 20 years and platinum 42 years.[6]

6.  While there are further sources of metals than are suggested by these figures, the sources are neither evenly distributed nor, in many cases, easily accessible. For example, many metals are dissolved in the oceans[7] and, as yet, economically viable extraction technology is not currently available, though lithium may be accessible from oceans using main group metal co-ordination chemistry.[8]

7.  The OneGeology portal[9] is a major international initiative that brings together information on mineral deposits. This is a useful assessment of the mineral deposits present within the Earth's crust that may be exploited as future reserves. Over the longer term, it is scientific and technological advances in understanding the chemistry of ore deposit formation that will provide the necessary facility to locate and extract metals. For example, a significant proportion of global uranium reserves are located in a single deposit in Australia that remained undiscovered till 30 years ago.

8.  The reality is that despite increasing metal production over the past 50 years, reserve levels have remained largely unchanged[10]. Indeed, recent reports suggest there is ample supply of rare earth metals in US deposits.[11],[12] Consumption and reserves are continually changing in response to movements in markets and scientific advances. Reserve levels depend on the scientific knowledge used to locate mineral deposits and on the price of the target mineral. As scientific understanding improves, reserves become replenished from previously undiscovered resources.

9.  Most metals occur in graded deposits; if prices rise, then reserves will extend to include lower grade ore; if prices fall, then reserves will contract to include only higher grade material. The reasons for high costs relate to low concentrations and to chemical similarity between some elements, which makes separation difficult. The lower grade ores will incur a higher cost to obtain the groups of metals, although the separation costs should remain consistent. Declining production is generally driven by falling demand and prices, not by scarcity.

10.  Metal deposits are unevenly distributed across the globe, and patterns of supply and demand are continually shifting. The advancement of technologies that rely on these metals, both within the UK and globally, are putting pressure on reserves and supply. It is likely that this will lead to tighter controls on export by the countries that currently control reserves.[13] This is of particular concern for the UK, as only 5% of the known worldwide metal reserves are found in Europe.[14]

11.  A key strategy for the guarantee of future global supplies will be investment in new, greener technologies to find and extract these metals from alternative sources. The extraction and processing of metal is energy-intensive and the carbon emitted as a consequence may represent a significant environmental limit to our resource use. We can expect to see major research and innovation directed towards breaking the current link between metal use and greenhouse gas emissions. Examples of where low carbon technology may be headed include in situ leach mining (uranium) and microbial bio-leaching of metals from extracted ores (copper and nickel).

12.  A robust strategy to manage import of metals to the UK is important and urgently required. The British Geological Survey monitors the import and export of metals within the UK and works alongside similar external organisations that monitor these resources globally. Additional monitoring to track the distribution, use and destination of these metals once in the UK would be useful, to help to advance technologies in reclaiming, recycling and reusing metals already imported.

13.  It may be possible to increase domestic supplies of strategic metals. The UK Mineral Reconnaissance Programme provides information on potential sources of strategic metals in the UK and whether these can be economically mined.[15]

14.  There is an opportunity for the UK to develop means of recovering higher grade metals present within waste sites. As demand for metals increases, so does price. As such, lower grade ores are increasingly sourced to meet demand. Such a strategy would enable the UK to reduce its dependency on foreign imports of SIMs. This would need to be accompanied by a change in business and consumer attitudes towards recycling waste materials (see below).

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?

15.  The UK is almost exclusively dependent on the import of metals for its technology sector. As global demand of strategic elements increases, the UK is likely to become vulnerable to shortfalls in supply. Particular metals of importance to UK industry include:

  • lithium (battery technology and pharmaceuticals),
  • platinum (catalysis, pharmaceuticals, jewellery, catalytic converters),
  • indium (flat panel components),
  • gold (electrical equipment, pharmaceuticals, jewellery etc), and
  • rare earth metals (lasers, magnets, pharmaceuticals, electronics, superconductors, lasers).

Further details of these metals, their uses and estimated reserves are highlighted in Appendix 1.

16.  A strategy that encourages the UK industrial sectors to reduce, replace and recycle its SIMs, alongside developing alternative technologies based on substitute materials, would reduce UK dependence on SIMs. Such approaches are currently being developed within other countries.

17.  The Japanese technology industry, like the UK's, is highly vulnerable to changes in supply of imported SIMs. In 2007, the Japanese government published its "Element Strategy", containing four key strategies to reduce, replace, recycle and regulate the use of rare metals within industry. Additionally, support of the underpinning chemical and physical science research is identified as key for the development of technologies that use sustainable alternatives.[16]

18.  China, India, Russia and the USA are among nations that are establishing policies that regulate supply and export in order to control reserves of strategic metals. While these policies do not currently restrict the export of metals, they are geared to increasing export duties that will result in an increase in the cost of supply to the UK.[17]

19.  The EU commissioned a report—"Critical raw materials for the EU"—that highlights the EU dependence on imported metals for its technology industries[18] and identifies the need to establish a trans-European policy to safeguard supplies.

20.  These examples highlight the need for the UK government to develop its own strategy.

21.  In the short term, the UK would benefit from appropriate monitoring of imported SIMs, particularly with regard to their distribution within manufacturing and attendant products. The RSC would be willing to work with Government and other stakeholders to establish networks of expertise for developing such a framework.

22.  In the longer term, investment in research from both Government and industry is essential for the development of alternative technologies that do not rely on SIMs.

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?

23.  Currently, there is less incentive to recycle and recover strategically important metals as technology costs generally outweigh the ease of sourcing new imports. However, high-value metals, such as gold, are of concern, especially when they can become widely dispersed thereby making recovery difficult.

24.  The UK would benefit from the strategic development of new recycling and extraction methods, which will require financial support of the underpinning research. The key areas to focus on are recycling, replacing, reduction and recovery. This management of waste products could produce continued supplies of metals in the longer term.

25.  Recycling affords the opportunity to maximise the use of supplies already within the UK. Efficient recycling depends critically on product design, and this needs to encompass design for re-use, re-manufacture as well as recycling. These demand that designers, chemists and engineers work together to ensure that all the components, including the metals, are economically recovered at the end of the product life cycle. A key goal to ensure recycling is adopted more widely across the manufacturing sector is that products developed from recycled components meet the same quality standards as those made from originally sourced materials. Specified design would allow for easy recycling, while appropriate standards and sufficient labelling would help to specify the quality of recycled materials.

26.  Orangebox is an office furniture design company setting a good example. Their business model encompasses a cradle-to-cradle approach to product design. Incorporating an end-of-life pick-up recycling service, the entire production process is designed to have minimal energy impact. Orangebox have been supported by Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, an organisation that brings together designers, businesses, chemists and engineers to promote cradle-to-cradle product design. This pioneering approach needs to be extended to other businesses.

27.  A 2010 Johnson Matthey review of global statistics for platinum supply and demand[19] suggests that future supplies of platinum (and other metals such as ruthenium, rhodium, iridium and palladium) recovered from automotive catalysts, jewellery and electronics are likely to increase. Improved recovery and recycling processes will enable the recovery of greater quantities of these metals to meet demand.

28.  IBM is another company that monitors its metal recycling and waste management practices. Their Global Asset Recovery function tracks all material that is returned at the end of product life, recording what is recycled and what sent to landfill. In the past three years, their major de-manufacturing locations have recycled more than 55,800 tonnes of product waste including over 37,800 tonnes of ferrous and non-ferrous metals; only a fraction of a percent went to landfill.[20] Where products contain strategically important materials, we should ensure that there are sufficient drivers for suppliers take back their products at the end of life to ensure recycling occurs ethically and safely.

29.  Recycling gold from electronic equipment is challenging, but vast improvements in recycling techniques are being made.[21]. Its low chemical reactivity and excellent electrical conductance make gold difficult to replace in high-end electrical equipment. While there is significant interest in the development of copper alloys, which may provide cheaper alternatives, there remain significant technical barriers.[22]

30.  Indium is another metal that is difficult to reclaim.[23] The process is energy- and time-consuming and takes several weeks to obtain a reusable form of the metal. New processes are required to make this more cost-efficient in order for industry to adopt these methods.

31.  Neodymium gradually loses some of its magnetic properties when recycled, making it less effective when reused in a new product. Therefore, alternative materials are required together with more efficient recycling processes.

32.  Reduction in the quantities of metals incorporated into products would allow the UK to extend the lifetimes of the imported metals supplies. One example of such an approach is the smaller quantity of platinum deployed in catalytic converters developed by the Mazda Motor Corporation, which required the inputs of chemists, engineers and designers.[24]

33.  Metals can be recovered from landfill sites. However, there are issues whether current sources of waste metals within the UK hold enough reclaimable metal to meet technological demand and whether recovery is cost effective. Landfill sites contain many redundant electrical equipment components. These items are important and potential sources of SIMs, including gold, neodymium, lithium etc. Currently there are no cost-effective ways to extract these metals. For example extracting indium from even one brand of television requires several different processes since each set originates from different suppliers and is designed slightly differently. Consistent design features will a key improvement required to enable sustainable and efficient metal recovery in the future. Rather than export most of our waste, as we do presently, government should consider ways in which SIMS are retained within the country for re-processing. This should include investigation as to whether current waste materials within land fill sites could be incinerated to allow recovery of metals from the reduced ash. This could be a potential further inquiry.

34.  Additionally, other, less obvious, sources of recoverable metals need to be explored - for example the high levels of platinum present in road dust.[25]

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.  In some instances, there is no foreseeable method to replace certain metals with alternative materials. In such instances, use of reduced metal quantities is a short to medium term solution that will assist in reducing metal consumption although it does not eliminate metal dependence. As mentioned elsewhere, product design will prove critical in this regard.

36.  While some SIMs are being replaced by alternative technologies, this remains a long-term strategy that will require continued research investment to develop many viable alternatives.

37.  Sourcing alternatives for indium is a high priority, as the estimated limit to sources is four years. Indium is used in light emitting diodes (LEDs) in televisions; these are gradually being replaced by organic LED versions.[26] Samsung for example are producing 3-D TVs using this new technology, though production is based in South Korea.[27]

38.  In the UK, Plastic Logic and Oxford Advanced Surfaces Group Plc—spin-out companies from Cambridge and Oxford Universities, respectively—are developing "plastic electronics" from non-metallic materials for use in display technologies.[28],[29]

39.  There is potential to replace the lithium used in batteries with alternative materials such as disodium sulphide. Similarly, it may be possible to replace platinum in solar technologies with graphene (a sheet form of carbon one atom thick).[30] However, additional research is required before these alternatives become commercially feasible.

40.  In the USA, copper-coated graphite compounds are potential future replacements for platinum in solar cells.42 Should this technology prove to be viable, it is attractive because copper and graphite are non-scarce elements.

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

41.  There is an opportunity for the UK to take the lead in reducing, recovering and recycling strategically important metals. At a national level, the UK's world-class science base and industries can develop technologies to reduce reliance on imported metals. Globally, we can work with other countries to implement legislative measures that can regulate supplies.

Leading by example

42.  The UK has a long established record in world-class research. As such, there is a huge opportunity for the UK to be at the forefront of the development of stewardship strategies for SIMs, alongside innovation in alternative technologies that either utilise more abundant elements or alternative materials.

43.  The UK can develop waste management strategies to recycle those metals already in circulation, thereby enabling the country to reduce its dependence on imports on a shorter timescale. Using our strong product design networks, the UK can develop new products that encompass ease of recycling with aesthetic appeal to the consumer. Scientists and engineers will play an important role in harnessing ways to reclaim metals within refuse sites. Collaboration between industry and academia will ensure that new processes are cheap, practical and effective.

44.  There is an opportunity for the UK to become world-leaders in material recycling and reuse. Some UK companies are already leading the way. Axion is a company that recycles plastics, from discarded clothes hangers for instance.[31] The recovered materials are exported to China (where they were originally sourced) to be re-manufactured into new products for re-export to the UK. This kind of recycling is an example of how a cradle-to-cradle lifecycle approach to product design can provide economic benefits to the companies that adopt it.

International collaboration

45.  Global strategies to acquire and regulate the use of strategic elements are urgently required and many countries are now legislating to mitigate the effect of dwindling supplies. The UK could learn from other countries who are already implementing policies to reduce their reliance on imported metals.

46.  A report produced for the Japanese government in 2007[32] lays down four principles for the use of rare metals and regulated elements: reduction, replacement, recycling, and regulation. On the basis of these principles, Japan has defined their element strategy as one of the most important priorities for science and technology research.

47.  In November 2010, representatives from the US Department of Energy (DOE), national laboratories, industry, and Japanese institutes gathered for a roundtable discussion on strategies with regard to rare earth elements. with an emphasis on those used in clean energy technologies.

48.  In December 2010, the US DOE launched its Critical Materials Strategy[33] The report examines the likely role of rare earth metals and other materials in clean energy technologies. The DOE describes plans to:

  • develop its first integrated research agenda addressing critical materials;
  • strengthen its capacity for information-gathering on this topic; and
  • work closely with international partners, including Japan and Europe, to reduce vulnerability to supply disruptions and address critical material needs.

The Royal Society of Chemistry

22 December 2010

Metal GroupWhere
Limit / yr32
Uses60, 61 Alternatives
Platinum[34],[35] PtPlatinum MetalsS Africa, N & S America 42Catalysis[36], pharmaceuticals62,65, surgical implants jewellery, electrolysis, catalytic converters graphene
Ruthenium60,61 Rh Platinum MetalsS Africa, N & S America 42Electronics, jewellery, pens, cathodes, radiotherapy[37]
Rhodium60,61Rh Platinum MetalsS Africa, N & S America 42Catalysis, jewellery, electronics
Osmium60,61Os Platinum MetalsS Africa, N & S America 42Fountain pen nibs, phonograph needles (early makes), Fingerprint detection, surgical implants
Iridium60,61Ir Platinum MetalsS Africa, N & S America 42Deep water pipes, catalysis, spark plugs, source of gamma radiation[38]
Palladium60,61Pd Platinum MetalsS Africa, N & S America 42Jewellery, catalysis, dentistry[39], watches, spark plugs, electronics, blood sugar testing[40]
Lithium60,61Li Andes in S America45 Batteries, energy storageDisodium sulphide
Indium60,61In China, USA, Canada, Russia 4Thin layer solar cells, glass coatings in TVs, semiconductors, light emitting diodes, medical imaging of antibiotic therapy Organic light emitting diodes
Gold60,61Au Transition MetalChina, S Africa, S America, Australia 36Electronics, pharmaceuticals[41],[42], jewellery, food, cosmetics Nickel/Copper alloys[43]
Scandium60,61Sc Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedLight alloy for aerospace comonents, additive in Mercury-vapour lamps
Yttrium60,61Y Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedLaser, high-temperature superconductors, microwave filters
Lanthanum60,61La Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedHigh refractive index glass, flint, hydrogen storage, battery-electrodes, camera lenses, fluid catalytic cracking for oil refining
Cerium60,61Ce Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedChemical oxidizing agent, polishing powder, yellow colours in glass and ceramics, catalyst for self-cleaning ovens, fluid catalytic cracking catalyst for oil refineries
Praseodymium60,61Pr Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedRare-earth meagnets, lasers, core materials for carbon arc lighting, colourant in glasses and enamels, additive in didymium glass used in welding goggles
Neodymium60,61Nd Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedRare-earth magnets, lasers, violet colours in glass and ceramics, ceramic capacitors
Promethium60,61Pm Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedNuclear batteries
Samarium60,61Sm Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedRare-earth magnets, lasers, violet colours in glass ceramics, ceramic capacitors
Europium60,61Eu Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedRed and blue phosphors, lasers, mercury-vapor lamps
Gadlinium60,61Gd Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedRare-earth magnets, high refractive index glass or garnets, lasers, x-ray tubes, computer memories, neutron capture
Terbium60,61Tb Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedGreen phosphors, lasers, fluorescent lamps
Dysprosium60,61Dy Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedRare-earth magnets, lasers
Holmium60,61Ho Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedLasers
Erbium60,61Er Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedLasers
Thalium60,61Tm Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedPortable X-ray machines
Ytterbium60,61Yb Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, North America Not estimatedInfrared lasers, chemical reducing agent
Lutetium60,61Lu Rare Earth MetalAsia, Australia, N America Not estimatedPET Scan detectors, high refractive index glass


6   "Is this the start of the element wars", New Scientist, 27 September 2010, (see Appendix Two for relevant diagram), 

7   World Gold Council website, Back

8   "Lithium Occurrence", Institute of Ocean Energy, Saga University, Japan, Back

9   OneGeology, Back

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

11   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

12   US Geological Survey website, Back

13   Scarcity of Minerals: a strategic security issue, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, No. 02/01/10, Back

14   Houston Museum of Natural Science, Back

15   Evaluation of the Mineral Reconnaissance Programme-evaluation report 14, BIS, Back

16   Strategic Proposal Catalogue 2004-2010", CRDS, JST, 2010, Back

17   Scarcity of minerals:a strategy security issue, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, 2010, Back

18   Science Daily website, Back

19   Johnson Matthey, Platinum Today website, Platinum 2010 Interim Review, Back

20   IBM, Back

21   Gold Bulletin, Gold Council, volume 23, p209, Back

22   Gold Bulletin, Gold Council, volume 43, p150, Back

23, Back

24  Chemistry World, October 2007, Back

25   Today's wastes, tomorrow's materials for environmental protection, Hydrometallurgy, vol. 104, issue 3-4 Oct 2010, Back

26   Chemical Sciences in Society Summit 2010: sustainable materials, workshop discussions. Back

27   Which, Back

28   Plastic Logic, Back

29   Oxford Advanced Surfaces, Back

30   Highlights in Chemical Science, RSC, October 2010, Back

31   Axion Group, Back

32   Strategic Proposal Catalogue 2004-2010, Centre for Research and Development Strategy, Japan Science and Technology Agency: "Element Strategy", pg. 90, Back

33   Critical Materials Strategy, US Department of Energy, December 2010, 

34   Chemicool, Back

35   RSC Visual Elements, Back

36   Johnson Matthey, Back

37   NHS, Back

38   Journal of Nuclear medicine, vol. 26, no. 11, November 1985, Back

39   Johnson Matthey, Back

40   Accu- check strips, Roche, Back

41   Science Daily, 15 March 2006, Back

42   NHS, Back

43   University of Connecticut, Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 17 May 2011