by Allan Walton, Paul Anderson, Gavin Harper and Vicky Mann
Over the next 5-10 years many of the UK’s large industrial sectors (including automotive, aerospace and energy generation) will see dramatic changes as we move from a society based on fossil fuels to one driven by electricity. Initiatives such as the government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution are to be welcomed for their ambition, but without secure access to the technology-critical metals that are the building blocks of the green economy their vision will be impossible to realise.
Technology-critical metals such as rare earths, lithium and cobalt are essential for emerging clean-energy technologies including electric vehicle batteries, and permanent magnets used in efficient motors and generators. Demand for these materials is expected to grow exponentially over the next 20 years as a result of the global race towards next generation clean-energy technologies. These technology-critical metals have already been identified by the EU, US and Japan as being a serious supply risk.
The Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials (BCSECM) was set up in 2017 to help address this issue, after it became clear that the UK’s exit from the European Union meant there was an urgent need to develop a national strategy. Working with academics and industry partners from around the UK, the team was able to bring together experts in mining, materials processing, manufacturing and recycling to consider how such a strategy could be developed. A policy commission, chaired by Sir John Beddington, was set up to provide a focus for this work and published its report Securing Technology-Critical Metals for Britain in April 2021. This article outlines the findings of this report.
Growing demand, precarious supply
The world’s demand for raw materials is expected to double by 2060, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The requirement for metals is expected to grow even faster, with an expansion from 8 to 20 gigatonnes over the same period. In volume terms, much of this will be readily available, and easily recycled, metals like iron and aluminium – the UK currently exports much of this valuable raw material resource owing to a lack of onshore metals processing capacity. However, high-technology industries that make, for example, batteries and motors for EVs, the generators for wind turbines and the jet engines for aircraft are dependent on many technology-critical metals. It is predicted that by 2050 the EU will require 60 times more lithium, 15 times more cobalt, and ten times the amount of rare earths compared to the current supply to the whole EU economy. The new industrial strategy for the EU warned that Europe’s transition to climate neutrality could replace today’s reliance on fossil fuels with one on raw materials, many of which we source from abroad and for which global competition is becoming fierce.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of many supply chains and, as we scramble to shore up existing industries and expand into new job-creating sectors, the UK needs to ask itself serious questions about how it will access essential raw materials like technology-critical metals. To put this in perspective, such metals are vital to 7 of the top-10 UK export markets, with a value of more than £150 billion annually. The Faraday Institution predicted that the transition to manufacturing electric vehicles (EVs) could support 220,000 jobs by 2040. The ability to create and retain these jobs will depend on the UK’s access to critical materials for batteries and rare earth magnets for EV motors and platinum group metals for the hydrogen economy.
Technology-critical metals are often at risk of supply shortage for a number of reasons: rapidly expanding markets, geographical concentrations in certain parts of the globe (see Fig. 1), political factors (such as trade disputes, quotas and taxes), low recycling rates and a lack of substitute materials. None of these strategic elements are mined in significant quantities in the UK.
Accessing the raw materials is just one piece of the jigsaw. Without the processing technologies necessary to convert these technology-critical metals into, for example, chemicals, cathodes, alloys or magnets, we remain reliant on other countries for the critical components needed by our industrial sectors, and in many cases a large bulk of the value and jobs are in these parts of the supply chain. Highly skilled jobs, which would otherwise provide high-quality employment, are at risk if we do not capture more of the value chain in the UK. Some regions of the world, especially China, have invested heavily in the processing capability to convert these materials into products and, by doing so, now control the downstream supply chain.
Fig. 1 – sources of strategically important materials
Recycling or re-using the materials and components at end-of-life or from production scrap could provide a significant indigenous supply of technology-critical metals. However, there are technological, economic and regulatory barriers in some cases, which has meant that many of these materials are lost in the system. In fact less than 3% of rare-earth materials are recycled today worldwide. A UK-based secondary supply chain could be developed to re-use, recover and reprocess these materials and products, learning lessons from success stories with platinum-group metals and aerospace alloys, where world leading recycling technologies have been developed in the UK.
There are also opportunities for primary supply in the UK and by making strategic alliances overseas. The UK has major international interests in mining, through London registered companies, mine finance, equipment supply, consultancy services, and research and education.
The policy commission developed a number of recommendations informed by the challenges that end-users in crucial British industries have faced, as well as insight from across the supply chain for a number of key technology metals. Although the specific challenges around different materials vary, overall it is clear the UK urgently needs to develop policy responses to the critical materials challenge post Brexit.
- The UK should create a single body responsible for developing strategic access to technology-critical metals. This body should link the primary and secondary markets for technology-critical metals and maintain an overarching strategy for the UK.
- We should seek opportunities to diversify our access to primary resources of technology-critical metals, through resource diplomacy. This should form part of new trade negotiations.
- Actively attract and provide support for large-scale strategic private investments for supply chain development of technology-critical metals both at home and abroad, and aim to make the UK an international refining centre for specific technology-critical metals by 2025.
- Create individual task forces bridging primary and secondary materials for targeted technology-critical metals. These should identify the investments that would be required to set up primary processing, refining and recycling facilities for these materials.
- Introduce incentives to encourage recycling refining and processing of technology-critical metals in the UK, particularly for processes that deliver a lower environmental footprint.
- Consider measures to accelerate projects that seek to develop our indigenous sources of technology-critical metal (lithium, tungsten), including updating the regulatory environment.
- Prioritise technology-critical metals in UK Research and Innovation strategies in areas such as the circular economy, developing substitute materials and efficient processing techniques for technology-critical metals.
- Invest in the skills base in advanced materials processing and refining of technology-critical metals.
- Urgently address the lack of data on material flows for technology-critical metals into and out of the UK economy.
- Review waste management law with a view to promoting the recovery of technology-critical metals and ensure that there are no unnecessary regulatory barriers.
- Encourage information exchange through the whole supply chain to ensure the challenges for recyclers are well understood by the product designers.
- Consider how appropriate governance structures might ensure sustainability and resilience in the supply chain for technology-critical metals.