Viewpoint: Weighing the options - critical raw material shortage

Materials World magazine
28 May 2013

An EU project is looking to companies first to solve critical raw material shortages. Catherine Joce of Chemistry Innovation outlines the strategy.

Europe depends almost entirely on imports for a number of economically important metals. Many of these carry a high risk of supply chain interruption. The EU’s 14 named critical raw materials (CRM) include magnesium platinum group metals, tungsten and tantalum. If Europe does not increase supply or reduce demand, there will be adverse economic impacts on its competitiveness. A recently launched project, CRM_InnoNet, will address this by prioritising R&D needs, generating industry-led ideas for research funding and creating networking opportunities for European companies developing alternative materials.

While increased mining and recycling will play an essential role in addressing Europe’s insatiable materials requirements, in many cases it is possible to partially substitute or completely eliminate the need for the critical material altogether, by finding substitutes. For instance, the EU is investing significant amounts of money in graphene to directly replace platinum and graphite in batteries, and indium in transparent conducting films. Substitution of a key critical material with existing abundant materials or newly developed materials such as graphene is an attractive solution, but R&D is still fragmented.

To address this, the FP7-funded two-and-ahalf-year project is bringing together companies, academia and industry bodies to identify the biggest CRM-related challenges for the EU industry, and creating a roadmap and policy recommendations to ensure the right support and funding is available to develop suitable substitutes. The project is young, but what has become clear is that substitution involves everyone in the materials cycle including materials scientists, chemists, biologists, engineers and manufacturers, industry bodies and policy makers. If the EU is to reduce CRM reliance, it needs to identify where the CRM bottlenecks are and what strategies are most appropriate to address availability concerns, and create targeted collaborative projects that can bring multi-disciplinary teams together to deliver a solution.

There have already been successful examples of this. For instance, UK manufacturer Nexeon has replaced graphite in the anode of rechargeable batteries with a modified form of silicon that matches graphite’s properties and high energy density. Meanwhile Rio Tinto has replaced antimony oxide, a smoke suppressant in PVC manufacture, with Firebrake ZB (zinc borate).

Substitution initiatives are now being backed by European governments too, for instance the UK’s EPSRC currently has a funding call entitled Materials Substitution for Safety, Security and Sustainability. Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute has launched a dedicated business unit focused on substitution of raw materials and the German Central Innovation Programme for SMEs (ZIM) makes funding available for research around the use of resource-efficient technologies and materials as well as substitution and recycling. Elsewhere in Europe, ERA MIN is working to identify relevant funding calls around substitution. Further afield, Japanese energy technology developer NEDO is aiming to reduce the amount of rare earths used in electric and hybrid vehicles by developing a hybrid motor that is ‘rare earth free’.

These are great examples of innovation and interesting moves to fund new projects on substitution. But the challenge is ensuring CRM issues are addressed in a cohesive way across Europe. We need to understand what issues businesses are facing and which materials they expect to see increasing or decreasing in demand. And we need to know what enabling technologies and new materials are available but require development to enable commercialisation. Then we can pick areas to prioritise, develop suitable policies and create the right funding calls for academia to solve the most pressing problems. More industry-led projects such as this will hopefully help the EU remain competitive.