Strategically important materials

Materials World magazine
,
2 Mar 2011
Crystal bar of the metal hafnium, which is used in coatings on aeroplane engines. © Heinrich Pniok, www.pniok.de. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

With growing concerns about the world’s dwindling mineral resources and a shifting geopolitical pecking order, the UK Government’s Science and Technology Committee have launched an inquiry into the supply of strategically important metals.

The overriding message of the first session, held on 26 January in London, was that in spite of a tough global market, the UK could carve a niche as a world leader in recyclable products by building on its strengths in material science and product design.

Combining the expertise of Professor David Manning, Secretary of the Geological Society, Dr Bernie Rickinson, Chief Executive of IOM3 and Dr Mike Pitts from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the panel identified the core of the issue as the security of supply. They discussed a number of critical metals, such as platinum and cobalt, and how the availability of them will directly impact upon wealth creation in the UK.

As well as being important for many UK businesses, the availability of critical metals could influence or impede a number of Government priorities. Offshore wind farms, touted as a big part of the UK’s renewable energy strategy, use neodymium iron boron magnets. The setting up of a supply chain and a strategy to deal with the scarcity of neodymium therefore needs to be considered.

Another concern was that a shortage in material-rich emerging countries would prioritise domestic needs and could ‘throttle’ export of materials to the rest of the world, leading to higher prices.

Playing to strengths

Several solutions were discussed, such as re-opening the UK’s mines and investing in research into substitutes.

Japan was highlighted as having a wellplanned approach, consisting of a four-prong strategy of stockpiling, exploration, researching alternatives and recycling.

The latter two were suggested as the most relevant to the UK, as both material science and product design are well-developed. To boost the recycling sector, the panel said there needs to be a particular focus on how products can be disassembled and that more effort should be made to link recyclers to manufacturers.

They also suggested that an increase in the price of rare earth metals would force manufacturers to design products that either minimise their use or make them easier to retrieve. Rickinson added that resource management was ‘not just about bringing materials in, but controlling their use in second and third life within the international contours of every nation.’

The UK could establish itself as a knowledge powerhouse, if funding and resources were provided to train and retain young scientists to staunch the ‘greying’ of the sector. Professor Manning noted that this could help the UK attract the ‘best academics in the world’, who in turn could inspire young students who will have ‘brains agile enough to respond to [future] needs as they arise.’

The panel also said that Government could help businesses understand the ongoing scarcity of materials so that they could prioritise metal use accordingly.

Further information

UK Parliament uncorrected transcript of oral evidence to Strategically Important Metals, 26 January 2011

See also Mining for change, a report in this issue from the Global Mining Forum