Raw power - EC plan for sustainable materials supply

Materials World magazine
2 Jan 2014

The EC has recently announced a plan to ensure a sustainable supply of raw materials for the European economy. Guy Richards explains its key points and how EU members can play a profitable role.

As the issue of Earth’s dwindling natural resources becomes increasingly critical for industry and commerce, so does the need to secure the supply of raw materials. It is such a critical and far-reaching concern that addressing it effectively hinges on academia, commercial organisations and public policy-makers banding together on a pannational scale to find and develop innovative ways of safeguarding and replenishing stocks of these essential commodities.

To that end, in September 2013 the European Commission (EC) released a Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) that describes how the EU can reduce its dependency on imports, diversify sourcing, and improve supply conditions and resource efficiency. The plan, announced by the Commission’s European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Raw Materials, sets out a range of technological and non-technological targets to be achieved, which from a mining perspective include:

  • setting up 10 or so pilot projects, yet to be chosen, to develop exploration, mining and processing technologies such as high-resolution 3D geodata systems, down-hole and crosshole sensing, highly automated mines, in-situ leaching and integrated metallurgical systems
  • finding substitutes for at least three applications of critical and scarce raw materials, such as rare earths in magnets and indium in touchscreen devices
  • developing a framework for primary and secondary raw materials to provide a stable and competitive supply from EU sources
  • establishing a European raw materials knowledge base to provide data from different sources in a standardised way
  • establishing a network of research, education and training centres on sustainable raw materials management
  • fostering international cooperation between the EU and countries such as Australia, Canada and the USA

To set the SIP in motion, in October 2013 the EIP issued an open call for commitments from EU member governments, industry, academia and NGOs. Essentially, these are undertakings by interested parties to conduct research leading to innovations that contribute to achieving the plan’s objectives.

In all, the SIP identifies 24 action areas that together contain 97 specific actions, which are set out in more detail in the Raw Materials section of the Enterprise and Industry area of the EC’s website. To be accepted, a commitment needs to be clearly linked to one or more of the action areas and, ideally, be clearly linked to one or more of the actions. The closing date for this first call is the end of January 2014, but other calls will be issued in 2015, 2017 and 2019, with the viability of proposed solutions having to be demonstrated in a real environment by 2020.

Each commitment needs to be made on behalf of at least three partners, one of which must be designated as coordinator and contact point. Partners must be established in different EU member states, preferably from different regions of the EU, although partners can be from only one member for commitments linked to non-technology policy actions that target the national level.

Partners with their centre of activity in non- EU countries are allowed to participate if doing so provides added value. Although this is not a requirement, the EIP says it is important that the private sector is represented among the partners. Where appropriate, at least one SME – and preferably more than one – should be included.

Submissions must be sent electronically and take into account the difference between research and innovation. They must aim at achieving – directly or indirectly – one or more innovation such as bringing new products, processes, services, technologies, business models or ideas to the market. The capacity for commercialisation is therefore a key aspect of the proposal.

The SIP is not a new funding programme, however, nor are commitments legally binding. Partners must find their own funding, and each commitment must have an indicative overall budget covering the whole activity period. Also, as far as possible, the budget should specify the envisaged individual revenue sources as well as foreseen costs listed under the appropriate headings.

If expected revenues do not materialise, the partners may then have to revise the budget or re-orient the activities planned in the commitment. Also, where in-kind contributions are foreseen, for example expert man-months or making facilities available, it is recommended (but not required) that information about them is included in the submission.

The EIP is keen to point out that if a proposal is accepted, it does not include any obligation by the Commission or member states to provide any funding to support it. However, funding may be available through Horizon 2020, the upcoming EC research and innovation funding programme that will fund multiple projects contributing to the objectives of the EIP.

After the January 2014 deadline, the EC will then assess the proposals and begin choosing which ones to adopt, which should take about two or three months. If different commitments are closely linked, the partners concerned may be advised to cooperate during the implementation phase.

It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that potential partners have to go through this process unaided and in isolation. For example, in the UK in November 2013, about 50 delegates from multinationals, leading academic institutions and startup companies attended a networking event held in London by the UK Government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). At the event, and after hearing details of the Horizon 2020 funding, delegates were able to pitch their project ideas to the group, and this was followed by a discussion on how to establish collaborations.

Part of the Department’s role here is to provide help and support to potential proposers. As a spokesman explains, ‘It’s a matter for consortia to decide what research they want to bid for and to decide if they want to make their plans publicly known’. By way of a caveat though, he adds, ‘If they do make their plans known, that might help them attract new partners, but it also has the risk of disclosing information to potentially competing consortia.

‘The Department makes a case-by-case decision on participating in any proposals. As for all partners, such decisions will be based on what skills and capabilities the Department can bring to the project. The BIS doesn’t have a specific budget to fund proposals in this area, but it does provide help to UK organisations planning to submit a proposal for Horizon 2020 funding.’

The event was organised by the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network (CIKTN), which is supported by the Technology Strategy Board and which includes a Materials Security Special Interest Group. Dr Claire Claessen, Head of Projects, explains the SIG’s role. ‘It will help to stimulate UK progress with the SIP through events such as that held in London last November and other Horizon 2020 events, providing support for proposal development by accessing our European networks and contacts, and disseminating the EC-organised events relating to the SIP.’

Interested parties have not missed the boat, however. Not only will subsequent calls for commitments be issued over the next few years but, as Claessen explains, ‘Consortia will not necessarily be completely formed by the end of January, and there could still be opportunities for people to join in developing proposals for the Horizon 2020 deadline in spring 2014. We are highly likely to have events in 2015, too – most likely linked with the corresponding Horizon 2020 work programme.’ To keep updated on these events, Claessen suggests registering with the CIKTN and Materials Security SIG.

Given the size and range of this EC initiative, detailing every aspect of it is impossible, as the process of submitting proposals will naturally depend on a raft of factors. The benefits to participating UK organisations are clear though, and include better access to funding, the chance to build collaborative networks, gaining access to capabilities not available in Britain, and the scope for sharing the costs and risks of projects. This is not an opportunity to be missed.

A key part of the SIP’s structure is a set of operational groups, whose main role is to convert the Plan into tasks and actions, and organise and carry out its detailed planning. Professor Richard Herrington, Head of the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum, London, is a member of one of these groups. He explains his group’s aims. ‘My group focuses on exploration, extraction, processing, recycling and waste recoveries,’ he says. ‘One of the more specific areas we have focused on is deep exploration, acknowledging that much of the mineral exploration to date has been focused on near-surface discovery.

‘Deep exploration technologies is an area where European expertise can play a key role – for example, in geological targeting, geophysics and drilling. Another area is to improve recoveries during processing with new technologies, and better characterisation of ore types – again, areas where European expertise is already strong.’

Understandably, Herrington is a keen advocate of the initiative. ‘The crucial element here is to get in and be a part of the programme development system. It’s important to get in early to build a collaborative international and inter-sectorial network around the target areas of the SIP before the specific project calls are opened,’ he explains.

‘This dramatically increases the chances of obtaining funding, as the hardest part of responding to these EU calls is building the right teams with a balance of skills and interest. The science often proves to be the easiest part of the proposal to write.’