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SCI Groups respond to House of Commons inquiry on Strategic Metals

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12 Jan 2011

The Construction Materials and Materials Chemistry Groups have drawn up a detailed response to an inquiry by the House of Commons into Strategic Metals, or rare earths.

In his invitation to SCI, Andrew Miller MP, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said, 'Metals such as cobalt, platinum, titanium, tantalum and the rare earth elements are important resources, widely used in modern technological devices. For example, neodymium, a rare earth element, is used in magnets which are used in computer hard disk drives, electric vehicles and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

'There has been recent speculation that the availability of some of these metals is in decline, however, the exact impact of such a decline on UK high technology industries is unclear. Whilst other metals are more widely available but there are concerns relating to unethical mining and recycling from discarded devices. The Science and Technology Committee has today announced its inquiry examining the importance of strategic metals to the UK.'

Dr Mark Tyrer, chair of the Construction Materials Group, details the group's response to the questions posed by the Commons below:

Questions and answers

1. Is there a global shortfall in the supply and availability of strategically important metals essential to the production of advanced technology in the UK?

[1] Yes - and not just in metals. For example, the last remaining UK fluorite mine (Glebe, Derbyshire) has been closed by it new owners (INEOS) with the loss of 65 jobs. The asset is to be sold to a Mexican firm (Mexichem) by the end of 2010 (which will import the mineral from overseas) and will impose considerable costs in the acquisition of new processing equipment by their UK customers. Note that fluorite is an essential flux for metal refining and the principal pre-cursor to production of hydrofluoric acid.

[2] In considering supply and availability, we must distinguish between primary and secondary production and between home and overseas sources. Our indigenous metals reserves, though once extensive, are now considerably depleted, being worked extensively from the dawn of the industrial revolution to the present. We are dependent on the import of metals from overseas. Over the last decade, our ability to refine metals in the UK has reduced markedly; seeing the closure of our last copper smelter (James Bridge) our last zinc Smelter (Britannia) our major aluminium refiner (Anglesey) and the withdrawal from the secondary lead business by Xstrata (formerly Britannia Refines Metals) on the Kent coast. These changes leave the country increasingly dependent on overseas markets and technologies and severely limiting our ability to recycle the metals which we discard.

[3] As to the impact on 'the production of advanced technology in the UK' we can only speculate about the impact of the loss of skills, facilities and knowledge to this country. In terms of technological development (at which we still excel) the availability of strategic metals has not yet had a major impact on our R&D capability. However, our demonstrable inability to develop world-class research into profitable business is undoubtedly restricted by the lack of opportunity to develop R&D ideas with industrial sponsors, as strategically important businesses have been allowed to decline.

2. How vulnerable is the UK to a potential decline or restriction in the supply of strategically important metals? What should the Government be doing to safeguard against this and to ensure supplies are produced ethically?

[4] There are numerous examples of metals whose supply limits industrial growth. Indium for display technology; lithium for high energy density batteries; the rare earth elements terbium, lanthanum and neodymium, are all at the forefront of technological development and all are in short supply. There are two drivers to this. The ‘less common’ light metals, lithium and titanium are abundant in the earth, but are difficult and energy-intensive to refine. The UK is at the forefront of titanium refining R&D (see the FFC process ) and lithium is produced and recycled by Umicore in Belgium amongst others. On a recent visit to Umicore I was unsurprised to hear that the greatest restriction on the efficient recovery of lithium from batteries is that they are rarely recycled! Having paid a considerable sum for a mobile phone imparts a sense of value in its owner, which persists long after it has ceased to be used. Most of the redundant phones in the western world lie in a drawer! There is an obvious initiative the government could take to increase the supply of this metal – any incentive to recycle mobile phone and other batteries would offer huge savings over refining lithium from minerals such as spodumene. The UK does not have economic deposits of lithium, the bulk is mined in Bolivia, with Australia, Chile, Afghanistan and China holding considerable reserves.

[5] The issue of Rare earth Elements is much further from our control. The automobile industry uses tens of thousands of tons of rare earth elements each year, and advanced military technology depends on these elements also. Much of our 'green' technology depend on them, including wind turbines, low-energy light bulbs and hybrid car batteries. Of the 17 REE elements known, China holds 97% of the reserves and has threatened to stop, or severely restrict their export, preferring to export them as high-value products. The problem is that at present, there is an insufficient quantity of these elements in circulation to make their recycling worthwhile.

3. How desirable, easy and cost-effective is it to recover and recycle metals from discarded products? How can this be encouraged? Where recycling currently takes place, what arrangements need to be in place to ensure it is done cost-effectively, safely and ethically?

[6] It is relatively easy to recover elements from products, but this comes with an energy penalty and often generates wastes which often have no practical use. Developments in recycling technologies have been supported in the UK through the Research Councils, the Knowledge Transfer Networks and Technology Strategy Board and their continued success should be safeguarded.

[7] To increase the recycling of metals generally, a strategic review of the efficiency with which industries and local authorities deal with their waste inventory in needed. This should be followed by compulsory sorting of all metal wastes from households and businesses by the consumer and collection by local authorities. It is indefensible in a modern society to throw any metals away.

[8] We need a national review of metallic wastes in the UK, quantifying the amounts and locations of each metal in the national waste inventory and then to identify routes to their recovery. Once we understand the nature of the problem, we will be in a position to address it. At present a large, but unknown quantity of metals are neither in use, nor in the recycling circuit. It would be in the nation’s interest to minimize this quantity though recycling incentives.

[9] You ask how recycling can be encouraged and this is effective by both carrot and stick. To impose fines on people discarding metal waste is one option as would be the provision of a VAT discount on new phones; available when trading in an old one. The safety of recycling is another issue. For example, the lead in a car battery has potentially great toxicological impact. Thankfully, it takes a very long time before it is adequately dissolved and this is often sufficient for its impact to be diluted and dispersed. By and large, industrial safety is excellent in the UK and increased recycling of metals would seem to pose no new risks to those already accounted for.

[10] Lastly, the ethics of recycling are occasionally very poor indeed. We have all seen waste ground where the insulation has been burned from (often stolen) cables, prior to their sale as scrap copper. This localized and relatively small-scale crime is very difficult to prevent. Similarly, the export by sea of huge quantities of metals has ethical implications in that their initial ‘reprocessing’ in India, China and the Philippines is often crude and environmentally damaging. In both cases, we have a legislative framework in place which, by and large, prevents ethically unsound practice in the UK, but once out of our control becomes very difficult to manage.

4. Are there substitutes for those metals that are in decline in technological products manufactured in the UK? How can these substitutes be more widely applied?

[11] Current technologies do not provide suitable alternatives to the rare earth elements, which are of increasing concern. As stated above the opportunities for their recycling are very limited at present. We do have the facility for recycling platinum group metals from exhaust catalysts through Johnson Matthey, but the business is dependent on global car sales. At present, it is not very attractive to them, but as the major PGM operators in the UK, they should be encouraged. Globally, Anglo American controls almost half of the world’s reserves of platinum group metals and is the dominant force in their primary extraction. Much has been said about recovery of PGM dust from road gulley waste and various proposals have been made to address this. Again, this is an area ripe for development. Research into alternative catalysts should be promoted vigorously, but no obvious replacements to PGM elements seem attractive at present.

5. What opportunities are there to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substituting strategically important metals?

[12] The UK R&D community depends in part, on the strength of our government officials in effective lobbying in Europe. Through the European Technology Platforms, we have an opportunity to work with partners in Europe in shaping the political agenda for strategic materials R&D. We need to ensure our representatives are well-versed in science and technology and are in an informed position to conduct these negotiations to this country’s long-term advantage. There is no room for weakness here, as the German, Dutch and Scandinavian representatives seem especially able in this respect.

[13] Perhaps the greatest return for the taxpayer’s money would be to provide the TSB or KTNs with the resources necessary to find prospective partners and opportunities in Europe and to maximize the participation of the UK research community. This would require a small group of people to monitor both the ‘Official Journal’ and ‘Framework Programme’ literature and to disseminate this information in the UK. Moreover, involvement with the Directorates General and Technology Platforms will provide a valuable conduit for information transfer in both directions. The larger UK companies do this commercially and it would be an easy step for the government to take, involving little cost for potentially great rewards. In these times of both austerity and information overload, this might go some way to increasing our international collaboration, at least in Europe.

[14] In conclusion, Britain no longer meets its own needs in terms of metal extraction and its ability to recycle the metals it has used has declined considerably in recent years. Exporting our metals for recycling elsewhere comes at a cost to both the economy and environment. Moreover, it leaves us increasingly vulnerable to the fluctuations of the international metals markets and the political whim of monopoly supplier nations.

[15] Our greatest asset is in expertise across the entire supply chain, from exploration, mining, beneficiation and smelting, to novel technologies for recycling of secondary metals. Britain produces some of the most sought after graduates in these technologies and has generated a wealth of knowledge far greater than might be expected for our relatively small population. Our R&D assets in these critically important areas should be protected at all costs to ensure the materials security of the nation.

  • G. Z. Chen, D. J. Fray, T. W. Farthing (2000). 'Direct Electrochemical Reduction of Titanium Dioxide to Titanium in Molten Calcium Chloride'. Nature 407 (6802): 361–4

Mark Tyrer BSc MSc Ph.D. FGS FIMMM FMin Soc

Dr Tyrer's Declaration of Interests follow:

  • Currently: Independent Consultant in Geochemistry and Geomaterials
  • Visiting Professor, Coventry University Principal Research Fellow, University College, London
  • Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Imperial College, London Project Manager, Mineral Industry Research Organisation
  • Chairman, Construction Materials Group, Society of Chemical Industry
  • Director: The Association of Consulting Scientists, London
  • Company Associate: Land & Minerals Consulting, Ltd. Bristol and Quarry Design Ltd. Bristol
  • Company Associate: Quintessa Ltd. Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire
  • Editorial Board member - Mineral Processing & Extractive Metallurgy Maney Publishing, London, UK
  • Committee member: Cementitious Materials Group, Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining, London
  • Committee member: Materials Chemistry Group, Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining, London
  • Committee member: Geochemistry Group, Geological Society
  • Committee member: Applied Mineralogy Group, Mineralogical Society
  • Committee member: Standard 'B/516' British Standards Institute, London.

Background and Materials Chemistry issues

Background on the Group's response and specific Materials Chemistry issues from Group Chair Prof Bob Bradley

Background:

[1] Materials Chemistry is a special interest group of the Society of Chemical Industry; it has approximately 400 members drawn from:

(i) The industrial sector, which represent a broad spectrum of basic research and development, manufacturing and processing technology as well as senior managers and directors who are responsible for wide ranging policy development.

(ii) Academics and emerging young scientists that constitute a core segment of UK fundamental and applied research and technology transfer.

[2] The Group, through the Society, is a major forum for bringing together groups of scientists from specific disciplines, fostering exchanges of ideas, forming research and technology networks, identifying future direction and formulating strategic policy.

Through beneficial collaborations with the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and the Institute of Physics it provides the main UK spine of interaction for all those interested in Materials Chemistry and related matters.

The Group and the Society membership is therefore a major source of knowledge and opinion relating to metals and alternative materials technologies; for this reason we wish to register our interest and our willing to contribute to this enquiry.

[3] We note the well established major general increase in the consumption of metals which began in the last century, shows no sign of abating and is likely to be exacerbated by high-volume emerging economies.

[4] We note also the potentially vulnerable position of the UK in that present sources of metals required to fulfil its own needs are largely external.

[5] Since metal recovery and processing are largely energy intensive processes, it is also clear that there exists a paradox in terms of national and world supply in relation to burgeoning green and environmental issues.

Specific Materials Chemistry Issues

[6] The Group and Society interest and expertise impinge on Strategic Metals in a number of key areas, these are described below.

[7] Metallurgists and other scientists working directly in the metal sector and specifically those responsible for strategic planning and new technologies; clearly these have a critical role in both problem solving and deciding lead policy matters.

[8] An additional but critical area is that of alternative materials; here, to give but a few examples, composites provide alternative structural materials, hard coatings (such as diamond and other plasma CVD methods) offer wear-resistance and bearing surfaces, porous carbons for battery and other energy uses and improved efficiency in metal dispersion for catalyst systems all have a huge amount to offer in relieving pressure on essential metal technologies.

[9] Related to [8] are emerging alternative processing technologies which increase efficiency in existing methods or offer new routes to end products with less waste etc. A typical example is low energy separation and extraction methods.

[10] Finally, there are related policy issues of fundamental research, technology development and transfer which in the mid to long term both improve greater efficiency in, and provide viable alternatives to, present metal solutions.

[11] In short, it is our opinion that, though complex, the problems associated with strategic metals are not insoluble and that, amongst others, the membership of the SCI has a critical contribution to make.

Prof Bob Bradley
Chair SCI Materials Chemistry Group
University of Oxford


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