Critical materials and technologies

Materials World magazine
3 Mar 2012

Ensuring we have a steady, secure supply of essential materials isn’t as easy as it might sound, as Dr Steven Savage from the Swedish Defence Research Agency reports.

Materials for tools, shelter, clothing and self defence have always been essential for progress, and have long been used to define important stages in human development, for example the Stone Age, the bronze age and the iron age. These materials were essential for the tools that enabled progress and for what we today refer to as defence and security. But haven’t we progressed beyond this, as we now live in the silicon age? The last time materials were seen as strategically important was during the Cold War, when many nations stockpiled materials such as chromium, niobium, tantalum and cobalt. Those stockpiles were reduced, and in many cases eliminated, with the easing of east–west tensions, probably in part to release the significant cash value of the stockpiles that were financed by various governments.

There is a growing awareness that materials and associated technologies are again becoming strategic, perhaps because a surprising number of materials are not easily sourced within Europe. The global economy and ease of intercontinental transport have enabled the just-in-time concept of production and delivery. However, this practice is vulnerable and easily unbalanced. Perhaps the most visible evidence for this was after the recent earthquake and subsequent nuclear leakage in Japan, which disrupted the supply of components essential for many European automobile producers. There have been reports of fears that rare earth metals, where Chinese suppliers account for about 90% of the world production, may be restricted or unaffordable in the near future. While this fear is probably unfounded, the realisation that Europe may be dependent on non-European sources outside our control – both economically and politically – has raised public and political awareness. The possibility raises the spectre of a critical dependency – a situation with which Europe is unfamiliar.

A further aspect is that modern production is in many cases a matter of integrating a number of sub-assemblies, each of which contains components of unclear origin. Who knows what components are inside a black box, and where they actually come from? It is possible, and even likely that there are many instances where Europe may be dependent on non-European sources, not only for materials but also components and sub-assemblies. Companies are aware of this need for a guaranteed supply of materials and frequently rely on multiple suppliers to spread the risk of disruption.

A modern example of a strategic material is the semiconductor gallium nitride (GaN), essential for high power radar systems. This is available in the USA, but appears on the International Traffic in Arms Regulations list, which demands that export of certain materials, technologies and systems must be approved by USA authorities before an export licence is granted. Access to GaN conveys such military advantages that export is not permitted at present, even to friendly nations. Another example is aerospace-quality carbon fibre, essential for both military and civil aircraft. Carbon fibre is mainly supplied from sources in Japan and the USA, with only limited production in Europe. The case of rare earth metals, essential for high energy product magnets used in motors, generators, lasers and many other consumer and security products has already been mentioned (see the January issue of Materials World for more details). There are many other examples of critical materials.

Defining the meaning

So what is a critical material? This is not an easy question to answer, and is one of the initial tasks of a recently initiated EU Seventh Framework Programme – Evaluation of Critical and Emerging Technologies for the Elaboration of a Security Research Agenda (ETCETERA). Sometimes it is the application that defines the critical material. We are also aware that not only materials but also technologies have become critical resources. This is easy to illustrate by way of example: even if we have all the materials needed, do we have the skills needed to build and launch a satellite, or to build an atomic clock now necessary to define time in everything from GPS navigation to financial transactions? In these examples, the answer is ‘yes’, but in many cases the answer is ‘we don’t know’. Nor do we have a list of critical materials or technologies that may give rise to a critical dependency on a non-European source.

European politicians are becoming uneasy about the situation, as the risk of being suddenly deprived of a particular material, component or technology again becomes a matter of national security. Various efforts have been initiated to reduce the risk. One specific area being addressed is that of space technologies, now essential in so many other areas that European society would not function without them. Satellites are essential systems for navigation, weather forecasting, environmental monitoring and disaster relief, not to mention the many communications services they provide. Satellites are also critical components of our national defence systems, providing imagery for surveillance and communications.

Not only are many special materials needed for the actual satellite (for example semiconductors, thermal management materials and dry lubricants) and for the launch vehicles (including high temperature alloys, propellants and pyrotechnics), but also, among others, highly specialised components including atomic clocks for timekeeping and gyroscopes for altitude control.

Technology for security is now a major issue for all nations. It is an area where development is rapid, and in many cases outside the direct control of governments. Security systems essential for border security for airport safety, for identity verification and in sensors for detecting dangerous materials are designed, developed, built and operated by private companies. These companies may not themselves know exactly what is inside the black boxes that comprise the detectors, sensors, data analysis and other tools used in the system.

A changing emphasis

The emphasis has also shifted considerably, but not entirely, from the simple materials (usually metals) stockpiled during the cold war to technologies, including those for safety and security. Detection of dangerous materials has become a highly advanced science as transport of people and goods has reached such huge volumes. How do we ensure that of the approximately 150 million containers shipped around the world each year, none of them contain illegal substances such as explosives, smuggled nuclear material or even humans? The task is enormous, and demands highly advanced sensor materials, technologies and systems.

There are several stages to avoid a critical dependency. Firstly, how do we define a critical material or technology? Then where are such materials and technologies used? Can we identify a source? Lastly, when a critical dependency is discovered, what do we do about it?

The situation is further complicated when we consider that many security technologies, such as quantum computing and detection of nuclear and dangerous biomaterials, are still under development. When these technologies are still in the preproduction stage they are likely to start, and sometimes finish, their life as small companies. This is because of the risk of economic failure and the threat of non-European companies and organisations purchasing small businesses or transferring their intellectual property rights.

Several government and non-government organisations are engaged in developing methods to discover what materials and technologies are critical and in what situations they are used. The European Space Agency, the European Defence Agency and the European Community – through framework programme 7 – are collaborating in this area. A few projects have already started and undoubtedly others will be started in the coming years.  

Further information

Swedish Defence Research Agency/ Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, Olaus Magnus väg 42, Linköping, Sweden. Tel: +46 13 37 8431. Email: Website: