12 February 2011 by Pelle Neroth
There has been a tremendous explosion in the development of rare metals in the last 15 years, underpinning technology and economic growth. They are critical towards making future sustainable technologies work. The trouble is that, with Asia's rise, demand has exceeded supply, at least in the short term.
Dr Mike Pitts, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has therefore provided a list of the "World's Most Endangered Elements", covering the entire periodic table, much as you have lists of endangered plants or animals. The most endangered chemical element? Helium is the only material "we are definitely going to lose at some point in the future," he told the Commons Technology Committee two weeks ago. He added:
"You can't create or destroy elements, but the way we are managing most elements is really bad, and we are dispersing them in the environment in a way that makes them harder and harder to recover. We know on a grand scale what we are doing with carbon. We are starting to wake up to how badly we are managing the nitrogen or influencing the natural nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle and other minerals."
Developing new mines is one solution: but there are few easily accessible seams these days. It takes five to 15 years to develop a new mine before it's ready to produce, and the problem with new technologies is that their lifecycle far outstrips the pace at which new resources can be discovered.
Energy is also very important. Mining uses a lot of it, and fossil fuel prices are on the rise, which could price some technologies out of the market. The areas of the UK economy that are vulnerable include power generation, aerospace and defence. The staple base material in the engine compressors is nickel. Rare metals are also used in almost every consumer product you can think of. They are also used in wind turbines and solar panels. If there were no liquid helium, it would be hard to use MRI scanners.
What can governments do to help protect 'materials security'? Well, Britain's Geological Survey is one of the best of its kind, second only to the US - they are needed to understand the origin, distribution and future sources of rare minerals. They need to be funded to ensure that a steady flow of talented scientists joins the geologist profession. Another is to set a natural resource strategy, as the Japanese have done: they had a four pronged strategy. Stockpiling, committing cash to exploration and resource development offshore, looking towards alternatives and recycling.
Experts recommend the latter two for Europe.
Spending money on research could lead to, for instance, new non scarce solutions like polymers - easy to make - replacing rare iridium in the screens of televisions and mobile phones. There is a long lead time on this development. But even better would be to focus on recycling, and Europe is making some progress.
A few years ago, Brussels passed the WEEE, the Waste electrical
and electronic equipment directive. Local authorities and, principally, manufacturers, were given the requirement to secure the recycling of material they put to market.
The difficulties inherent in recycling are not to be underestimated, but inasmuch in that anyone is doing it, Dutch are particularly proficient at fulfilling ever upwards ratcheting recycling targets: Philips designs consumer products with rare minerals recovery in mind. For instance, when Philips manufactures a coffee maker or a fridge, it's built in a modular way, and their on board chips containing rare metals are very easy to take apart and recover. Instead of the material just being crunched together, making it much harder to separate later.
Philips has now set up nine different so-called cradle-to-cradle design teams, and British designers and engineers have been making study visits. The rewards are there: there is as much gold in one tonne of old computers as there is in 17 tonnes of gold ore. The constraints of a new, even tougher WEEE directive update currently passing through the European parliament ought to act as an creative inspiration to British product designers, the Commons was told by a representative of the UK design profession.
Waste management and conservation of rare resources are hugely important, surprisingly interesting subjects, and one to which can profitably return. Several experts said that it was in the UK's essential interest to work with Europe, not just in taking up best practice - as with Philips - but in sharing recycling facilities better- as well as sharing information, through pooling of advisory groups of geological expertise.
Also, the UK could more successfully operate through the EU's combined clout when working could keep the mineral stream open from unstable sources.
Even Cameron puts his euroscepticism aside when environmental matters are discussed; it is the area for which there is greatest public support for concerted Euro-action. And even patriots would scarcely argue the UK is the clean man of Europe.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 28 June 2012 at 05:48 PM by View from Brussels Moderator
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 12 February 2011 04:38 AM Brussels
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