Touch screen smartphones and tablet computers, flat screen TVs, wind turbines and electric cars – the new technologies that are now part of everyday life all depend on valuable metals which, although used only in small quantities, have unique properties and are very difficult to substitute. Caroline Hand reports.

While their names, taken from the less familiar sections of the Periodic Table, are not instantly recognisable, today’s society would struggle to function without certain metals. For example: rhenium is a vital component of jet engine blades; indium is used to make clear transistors for use in touch screens and liquid crystal displays; neodymium is alloyed with iron and boron to make high strength magnets essential for modern electric motors and wind turbines; and platinum group metals are needed to manufacture catalytic converters. Motor manufacturing, electronics, aerospace and the defence sector all depend on these metals, which are described as critical or strategic metals. Some of the emerging technologies dependent on such metals are listed below.

Raw material

Emerging technologies (selected)

Antimony

Micro capacitors

Cobalt

Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels

Gallium

Thin layer photovoltaics

Germanium

Fibre optic cable, IR optical technologies

Indium

Displays, thin layer photovoltaics

Platinum (PGM)

Fuel cells, catalysts

Palladium (PGM)

Catalysts, seawater desalination

Niobium

Micro capacitors, ferroalloys

Neodymium (rare earth)

Permanent magnets, laser technology

Tantalum

Micro capacitors, medical technology

Source: EU Raw Materials Supply Group

Which metals are included?

The list of critical and strategic metals is quite long, and concerned organisations differ slightly in their assessment of priority substances. The European Commission has singled out 14; the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) lists 18; and the UK Government’s Resource Security Action Plan offers a composite list of 35, though this includes non-metals such as timber, fish, aggregates and bromine.

Critical/strategic metals listed by the EU and STC

  • Antimony

  • Beryllium

  • Chromium

  • Cobalt

  • Gallium

  • Germanium

  • Gold

  • Hafnium

  • Indium

  • Lithium

  • Magnesium

  • Nickel

  • Niobium

  • PGM — platinum group metals

  • Rare earths, including yttrium, scandium and the so-called lanthanides (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium)

  • Rhenium

  • Tantalum

  • Tellurium

  • Tungsten

  • (The EU also lists Fluorspar and Graphite.)

Sources of strategic metals

These metals are not found in large quantities in the earth’s crust and are normally mined alongside bulk metals. For example, indium is extracted with zinc and rhenium and molybdenum with copper. However, the problem is not that these metals are in short supply or that resources are nearing exhaustion; rather, it is that the deposits are concentrated in a small number of nations, almost all of which are outside the EU.

  • China produces over 97% of the world’s rare earth elements.

  • Brazil accounts for 92% of niobium extraction.

  • 62% of chromium is extracted in South Africa and Kazakhstan.

  • Cobalt production is dominated by the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This uneven distribution of metals in the earth’s crust favours the emergence of supply monopolies and oligopolies. The STC report explains that monopolies and oligopolies can inhibit competition, reducing the benefits of free trade and leaving the market open to higher prices and unpredictable price fluctuations. It is this unreliability in terms of availability of materials and unstable prices that is of concern to industry in the UK and EU. Furthermore, there are fears that some countries could in the future adopt protectionist measures — perhaps under the guise of environmental protection — to keep the supplies of critical materials for their own use.

Earlier this year, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) drew up their Resource Security Action Plan in response to the concerns of British industry about supplies of critical raw materials. Industry has already had to cope with dramatic price increases for some metals as demand has grown. For example, rhenium cost $300 per tonne in 1996 but this had soared to $10,000 by 2008. The Government intends to help industry by improving the flow of information about critical materials and sponsoring further research. On an international scale, the EU is involved with the World Trade Organization to safeguard the continuance of free trade with China and other supplier nations.

Research is being carried out into opportunities for substitution. Direct substitution of critical metals is not usually possible because of their unique properties; however, it is sometimes feasible to redesign products so that different raw materials can be used. An example is the development of a new type of motor by the University of Tokyo that does not include rare earth elements. Despite this, the most obvious solution is to improve resource efficiency and ensure that once these vital metals are within the EU, they are kept in use and not lost as part of the waste stream.

Recycling of strategic metals

Some precious metals are already being successfully recycled in Britain. Examples are gold and the platinum group metals, which are recovered from waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). So valuable are these metals that waste company Veolia has started to extract platinum, palladium and rhodium — deposited by catalytic converters — from road dust. Around £80,000 worth of palladium is expected to be extracted from 30,000 tonnes of dust.

The British Metals Recycling Association estimates that 90% of metals are recovered from collected WEEE, but because strategic metals are dispersed through products in very small amounts, they are likely to be among the 10% of metals in collected WEEE that are not recycled. WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) reports that 75% of gold is lost in a conventional WEEE recycling process. More significantly, much electronic waste is not actually collected for recycling and is either stockpiled in homes or disposed of to landfill. Illegal exports of WEEE are responsible for a further leaching away of valuable resources. Finally, some metals are not being recycled because the technology is not yet available. For many strategic metals, including the rare earths, the recycling rate is less than 1%.

One action promised by the Government is to review the WEEE legislation in order to increase the rate of collection and recovery. As part of the European Pathway to Zero Waste, regulators are clamping down on illegal exports and businesses are encouraged to participate in a waste exchange.

Reuse and resource efficiency

Strategic metals are not generally imported into the EU as minerals: rather, they enter Europe in the form of components that are then assembled into finished products. While recycling remains problematic for many of these metals, reuse is a much more practicable option and several companies are already successfully collecting and reusing their own products and components.

Xerox, for example, has designed its products for ease of dismantling and is able to remanufacture them, using some components up to seven times. Ricoh, another supplier of office equipment, has enjoyed considerable success with its high quality remanufactured GreenLine range. Similarly, truck manufacturer Caterpillar uses a deposit system to encourage customers to return end-of-life products, which go to make a range of remanufactured vehicles with guaranteed performance.

If the WEEE regime were amended to make each manufacturer responsible for the recovery of its own products (individual producer responsibility), there would be a greater incentive across industry to “design for disassembly”.

Alternatively, manufacturers can take a more creative approach to their supply contracts, offering a service rather than a product. Some larger firms are offering a whole-life service to customers, from design and development through to manufacture and maintenance and, ultimately, to disposal.

Government action

The Government’s Resource Security Action Plan promises a range of actions to give greater certainty to British business as regards the availability and price of critical materials. Some of the measures have already been mentioned above, such as reform of the WEEE Regulations. One specific promise is to establish a Critical Materials Dashboard — an information tool accessible to businesses.

WRAP has been assigned the task of helping industry to improve its resource efficiency, recycling and recovery. It has produced its own good practice guides on recycling and treatment and offers support and advice to businesses through its website. It also promotes the PAS standards for recovered materials and products.

Further reading

Last reviewed 20 November 2012