Rare on Earth? Strategically important metals and education

Materials World magazine
3 Mar 2011

Until a few months ago I had never heard the term Rare Earth Metals (REM), but now scarcely a week goes by without the subject cropping up. Rare Earths are the 17 strange sounding elements squeezed into the periodic table between Alkaline Earths and Transitional Metals. With names like Gadolinium, Scandium and Yttrium, their uses are equally diverse, from specialist alloys to X-ray machines, magnets to memory chips, and lasers to fluorescent lamps.

Despite their collective name, these elements are relatively plentiful within the Earth’s crust. However, they are not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable mineral, or ‘earth’, form, hence the collective term ‘Rare Earths’. It is this scarcity, together with production limited to relatively few countries, that prompted the Government’s Science and Technology Committee to set up an inquiry examining the importance of strategic metals to the UK. The inquiry remit covered five broad areas – supply and availability; UK vulnerability to, and safeguards against, supply restrictions; recovery and recycling; identifying substitutes; and opportunities to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substitution.

In January, the Institute’s CEO Bernie Rickinson gave evidence to the committee, together with representatives from the UK Geological Survey and Royal Society of Chemistry. Unlike the headline grabbing banker-bashing Select Committee hearings, this session was measured, polite and constructive. The panel gave thoughtful and considered responses to questions on the issues of maintaining security of supply, sustainability, recycling and substitution, and the role of product design in making REM recycling easier and more economically attractive. Apart from the stated inquiry objectives, it was a good example of how the Institute’s remit extends beyond just promoting materials, minerals and mining to leading and informing the national debate.

However, the inquiry overlooked a vital part of the problem – the need to maintain expertise in the development and application of RE materials. To put it another way, developing the materials scientists and technologists of tomorrow who will rise to the challenges identified today. A review of student enrolments in Materials Science, Metallurgy and Mineral Technology subjects is not encouraging. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a total of 1,520 under- and postgraduate students enrolled on these courses in 2008/09, the last data published. This represents a 12% reduction compared to 10 years ago. Of these students, only two thirds were UK-based, the remainder coming from the EU or overseas. A 36% fall in the number of students studying Metallurgy and Mineral Technology is particularly worrying. But it is when compared to other subjects that the numbers are really put into perspective – in the same period, 65,000 were studying Computer Science, 35,000 Sports Science and 28,000 Media Studies.

In fact, there are more people at UK universities studying Chinese than there are studying Materials, Minerals and Metallurgy, so at least if we are unable to produce our own REM, we will have the people to negotiate a deal with just about the only country that can.

We need to rethink how we promote materials science and technology as a career choice. The IOM3 Schools Affiliate Scheme is a great resource but where is our Stephen Hawking or David Attenborough, and, more importantly, how do we get them in the news and on television? Perhaps we could learn something from those Media Studies graduates after all. 

Further information

Instru-metal minerals - Strategically Important Metals, Materials World, March 2011

Schools Affiliate Scheme