Get talking – Dr Robert Quarshie

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2015

Dr Robert Quarshie leads the materials and nanotechnology activities at the UK’s innovation network (the KTN). Robert was a key member of the Materials Innovation and Growth Team (Mat IGT) that developed the UK Strategy for Materials. He has previously worked as the Senior Technology Advisor in the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills. A materials technologist and business school graduate, Robert has more than twenty years’ industry experience working in polymeric and metallic coatings for steel and aluminium, including senior management roles in Tata Steel.

The innovation needed to protect our way of life

A raw material is labelled ‘critical’ when it is both economically and strategically important but there is also a high risk of its supply being interrupted within the next ten years. It is likely to surprise most consumers that much of the technology we have come to take for granted relies upon critical raw materials (CRMs). Smart phones, laptops, tablets and televisions are all culprits — but the issue is wider reaching.

Prompted by uncertainties concerning the ongoing supply of CRMs, the European Commission funded the CRM_InnoNet project to produce the 2015 roadmap report for CRM substitution. The project constituted 18 partners across Europe, headed by the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). 

The risks we face

Global demand for steel, largely driven by economic expansion within the BRIC nations, is expected to increase by about 80% from 1.3bn tonnes to 2.3bn tonnes in 2030. At the same time, the raw materials necessary for making steel alloys are declining substantially. The availability of essential raw materials like tungsten, beryllium, coking coal, niobium and other alloying elements on the CRM list poses a global risk to high value alloy manufacturing.

Not all materials currently identified as CRMs are particularly scarce. Magnesium is relatively abundant on our planet, making up 2.5% of the Earth’s surface, but we are heavily reliant on supplies from China and sourcing or developing adequate substitutions is problematic. For this reason, it was identified as a CRM in the European Commission’s 2010 Critical Raw Materials Report. It remained on the list when the report was revised in 2014. Being over-reliant on supply from a single source introduces concern that the supply chain may crumble, leading to price volatility.  

Although CRMs are employed in crucial applications in most highly profitable industry sectors, the aerospace and automotive sectors are arguably significantly at risk due to their reliance on high-strength steels. Such steels are highly dependent on the use of CRMs in the early stages of production for body formation, welding and coating. While both sectors are increasingly adopting the use of other lightweight materials such as aluminium and carbon-fibre, transition is slow in the case of high volume cars. 

The pace of innovation

Making greater use of alternative raw materials must be examined and production techniques should be adapted to reduce and/or exclude CRMs. Natural gas, a substitute for coking coal, has already been identified as one means of reducing the CRM dependence within steel production. However, natural gas is expensive in Europe and is not expected to significantly decrease the demand for coking coal in the near future. Promising potential has been seen in recently developed ceramics, intermetallics and ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). However, the technology is still at the early stages and the replacement of superalloys in commercial aviation is not expected any time soon. Altering the microstructure in alloys also offers potential for reducing the CRM requirements in alloys but more research and development is required before commercially viable alternatives are likely to emerge. In short, the pace of innovation must quicken.

The ICT, construction, chemical, energy, automotive and aerospace sectors collectively create or support tens of millions of jobs in Europe and generate billions of euros in profit. These sectors all rely on CRMs. A failure to adequately invest in ways to wean ourselves off CRMs could therefore have a catastrophic impact on businesses, various economies and the way of life we currently enjoy.