7 January 2021
by Dr Colin Church FIMMM

Critical thinking - take a strategic view on critical raw materials

The UK needs to take a strategic view on critical raw materials. Dr Colin Church FIMMM, Chief Executive at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, puts forward the case.

Rare minerals
Rare minerals © USGS

Critical raw materials (CRMs) are increasingly a hot topic of discussion for various sectors, but, so far, the UK has not taken a strategic view on the issue. This is an omission that needs urgent attention, because:

  • CRMs are critical.
  • The supply of CRMs is not assured.
  • To meet the UK’s net-zero ambitions, we need a growing supply of CRMs.
  • Steady CRM price and supply is needed to grow key UK manufacturing sectors.
  • The UK must ensure its CRMs are produced ethically.

CRMs are essential to a wide range of industries. Aerospace needs aluminium (from bauxite) and titanium for structures and engines. The need for batteries drives demand for cobalt, graphite and lithium. Indium is a key ingredient of touch screens and rare earth elements (REE) are ubiquitous in magnets and other electrical and electronic devices.

Security of supply
The UK, as a wealthy-free trading nation, has always believed it is able to obtain supplies of these materials. But this is not always the case. It might be because the major source of a material is in a politically unstable country (cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Perhaps the country that controls the material is willing to manipulate prices or limit supply (China provides 98% of the EU’s supply of REE and has reduced exports or changed their price to suit its own needs).

A single company may have a supply monopoly (hafnium and strontium in the EU), an uncomfortable position for a customer, or extraction may be limited by nature or practicality – even before COVID-19, the International Tripartite Rubber Council forecasted a global million tonne shortfall in natural rubber due to plant disease and climate change.

According to the World Bank, decarbonisation leads to an increased demand for key metals and minerals – we will, it predicts, need over three billion tonnes to meet a 2°C climate change target, a 500% increase. That is not surprising when a typical battery electric vehicle (BEV) might contain around 24kg of lithium, 80kg of copper and a tonne of steel. A wind turbine might have more than 10t of copper with between a quarter and two-fifths of them relying on rare earth metals to operate.

The importance of securing a robust supply of certain CRMs is evident in BEV sourcing, where a large proportion (50-75%) of the value is in the raw materials, particularly in the battery and power-related components – cell assembly itself is relatively low added-value. Without a localised supply chain, cells are unlikely to meet Rules of Origin thresholds to support exports – for example, 80% of UK-manufactured cars are currently exported. There is therefore a drive to increase the proportion of the supply chain that is based in the UK to capture more of that value.

Environmental and social impact
Efficient mining and resource processing can provide good quality jobs, infrastructure and education. It can minimise its environmental impacts during production and can even enhance the local environment after use, providing restoration is done well. Done badly, it can have significant negative impacts on local populations and environments.

Key actions
The UK should therefore:

  • Get a better understanding of what CRMs matter for the UK and where in the economy they are used.
  • Secure supplies where possible, ideally through exploitation of deposits in the UK and/or more domestic processing capacity. Robust purchasing agreements elsewhere may be an option.
  • Use less of the key materials through efficiency or different technologies, low/no cobalt batteries and wind turbine drives that use other forms of magnets, green steel, etc.
  • Move to a more circular economy – greater reuse of products and components, for example, batteries, magnets, etc.
  • Recycle what is already here. We recycle about 1% of waste rare earth metals currently and recycling lithium from batteries is not currently economic.

Given the importance of these materials and their potential scarcity, surely the UK should be taking a strategic approach? That is what IOM3 thinks, and we will be working to raise the profile of this issue accordingly.

What are critical raw materials?

Generally, critical raw materials (CRMs) are metals and other naturally-occurring materials vital to the manufacture of various items that are important to current needs or to the transition to a low-carbon world, and that, for one reason or another, are in limited or potentially limited supply.

The UK Government has not developed its own list of CRMs, so the list below is the one used by the EU.



Platinum group metals



Phosphate rock


Heavy rare earth elements



Light rare earth elements Scandium


Lithium Silicon metal


Indium Strontium


Magnesium  Tantalum

Coking coal

Natural graphite          Titanium


Natural rubber               Tungsten





*The UK Government’s recent consultation, National Security and Investment Bill: Sectors in Scope of the Mandatory Regime, acknowledges the EU list and the British Geological Survey’s Risk List 2015, which covers similar materials.


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Dr Colin Church FIMMM

Chief Executive, IOM3