Our most important technologies, from communications devices to electric vehicles, depend on raw materials that are not evenly distributed around the world - or readily available. Elements we need to power digital devices and climate-friendly technologies are at risk of supply disruptions, leaving import-dependent countries like the UK vulnerable. The University of Birmingham’s Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials is finding solutions.
In May 2019, China’s president, Xi Jinping, took a tour of a factory which manufactures magnets from rare earths1, the vital materials used in technologies ranging from smartphones to electric cars. His top trade negotiator, Liu He, stood not far behind him. The message was clear: China has the power to restrict its supply of the vital elements in an escalating trade war with the US.
Days later, another hint followed, this time from the powerful National Development and Reform Commission. “If anyone wants to use products made of China's rare earth exports to contain China's development,” an official said, “the people… will not be happy with that”2.
China has a near-monopoly on rare earths, controlling over 90% of global supply3. When it cut exports in 2010, countries had to scramble for alternatives. Rare earths including dysprosium, yttrium and neodymium make up just some of the critical materials which our modern economies rely on. Others include the lithium, cobalt and nickel used in batteries for electric cars; niobium, which is essential to next-generation aircraft engines and gas turbines; and platinum group metals, needed as catalysts in electrolysers and fuel cells. All are at risk of short supply.
Not so rare
This is not, for the most part, because they are running out in the earth’s crust. Deposits of lithium are estimated to be about 3,000 times the current annual output4. Instead, critical materials are geographically concentrated, and vulnerable to political insecurity, or manipulation by the few countries which control them. Deposits often exist in other parts of the world, but so far, it has proved uneconomic to extract them.
Professor Allan Walton, founder and co-director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials (BCSECM), explains: “When it comes to rare earths, there are reserves all around the world; so, despite their name, they’re not actually that rare. But the processing is in China, and China is paying an environmental penalty for extraction. If you start a rare earths mine in another part of the world, often the cost of extraction is much higher, and you can’t compete.”
Great British problem
The supply of these materials is coming under pressure as the global population grows. The US, EU and Japan have all outlined strategies to sustain their access to critical materials, with help from experts at the University of Birmingham. Yet the UK, which relies entirely on imports, often from single countries, has no such plan in place.
This leaves the defense, aerospace and automotive industries exposed to price and supply volatility. While China has used its control of rare earths to advance its industrial interests, Britain boasts little capacity to process critical materials.
Dr Paul Anderson, BCSECM’s co-director and founder, illustrates the problem with regard to lithium-ion batteries - the kind used to power electric cars and mobile devices. Other countries have developed recycling capabilities, to ensure the critical materials inside them are reused, but the UK still has no such facility, he says: “At the moment those batteries are collected and exported, and there are just enough critical materials in them that a price will be paid. But if we have a no-deal Brexit, that export will attract a tariff, which could make the whole thing uneconomical. In that case we will be left with all our lithium ion batteries, and no route for disposal.”
One way to develop a nascent domestic supply chain is to reduce or replace critical materials with more common elements. It is already possible for engineers to do so, but at the moment this incurs serious mechanical costs, which compromise the green credentials of the technologies they underpin. “You can make motors operate without rare earth magnets, but they become less efficient, and harder to maintain,” Professor Anderson notes.
The BCSECM is paving the way to reduce critical material dependency by substituting lithium batteries with more sustainable sodium-ion alternatives. Unlike lithium, which is mined in South America, sodium is readily available across the world. “One reason we are interested in sodium is that it’s present in seawater. It’s cheap, and there’s no limit to where you can source your supply,” explains Professor Emma Kendrick, an energy storage specialist in the School of Metallurgy and Materials.
Sodium batteries might prove particularly useful in small “run-around” vehicles, she notes: “The automotive industry will continue to rely on lithium for some time, but one technology doesn’t suit every application. Most people go less than 40 miles a day in their car, and in such cases a smaller battery pack is fine, and a sodium-ion battery can be used instead of lithium. It’s just about changing perceptions.”
A circular economy
Another solution is to recycle critical materials from end-of-life technologies. But again, major technical and economic challenges must be overcome to make this possible. “We are never going to be able to extract those materials unless we invest in changing the way we recycle certain products,” Professor Walton explains.
The problem is increasingly pressing: the first generation of electric vehicles will soon be sent for scrap. “As things stand, there could be a situation in which an electric car doesn’t have an economic value at the end of its life,” Professor Walton says. “So the technologies used to recycle a car have to change. And if we don’t change our systems, we may ultimately just export all that waste and lose all of those valuable materials.”
The University of Birmingham is creating a more circular economy for critical materials by developing technologies to recycle and reuse lithium-ion batteries. This year, it was awarded £4 million to set up a pilot facility which will reclaim rare earth metals from hard disks and electric cars. The project forms part of an EU-funded programme capable of producing 20 tonnes of recycled magnets a year.
This should reduce dependency on imports and protect the UK’s manufacturing base. It can also mitigate the enormous environmental and social costs associated with mining in weakly-regulated countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its wealth of cobalt is often dug up in unsafe, artisanal conditions, using child labour.
A strategy for Britain
Regulation and policy will be required to secure a responsible supply of critical materials. BCSECM was recently awarded funding to launch a Critical Elements and Materials network, called CrEAM, which brings together specialists across the supply chain to develop a coherent policy to safeguard Britain against shortages and ensure that its manufacturing industry remains globally competitive.
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Developing capacity in extraction and processing will also be crucial. New mining technologies would reduce the environmental footprint incurred by the critical material industry, while bolstering British industry. Building domestic processing capacity, would ensure that value is added in Britain, instead of China. “We hope to start doing more manufacturing in the UK,” explains Professor Kendrick. “We have a vast chemical industry here which we could utilise to secure supply of critical materials - and that is something that is already starting to happen.”
This year, the University of Birmingham will launch a policy commission, aimed to generate a dedicated UK strategy for critical materials. Chaired by Sir John Beddington, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, it will guide policymakers on how to mitigate price and geopolitical volatility, ensuring that Britain sustains a competitive, sustainable economy through the 21st century.
2. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1152121.shtml / https://edition.cnn.com/2019/05/30/asia/china-us-peoples-daily-trade-war-intl/index.html
Banner image: Salar de Atacama, Chile - the world's largest lithium deposit. Image credit: Alamy.
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