Rare metals

UK's manufacture of rare earth metals must increase as economy meets lower carbon targets

The UK may need to increase its manufacturing use of rare earth metals as the country transitions into a greener economy, according to a leading scientist.

Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) made the comments at an inquiry chaired by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee into strategically important metals.

While the UK is currently only the ninth or tenth largest manufacturer of these metals in the world, Professor Watson said this may change as the country seeks to meet its targets in reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases over the next few decades.

“As the UK move towards a low carbon economy a number of rare earth metals will become much more important as the private sector reduces greenhouse gases by developing for example wind turbines, electric cars, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power,” he said.

China currently dominates the global rare earth metal market with a 97 per cent share, followed by the US, Japan and France.

Watson said it was important to explore opening mines in other countries like Australia, South Africa and Vietnam to create wider diversity and avoid a potential instability in the market.

The committee is also exploring the availability, price volatility and recycling opportunities of rare earth metals and their impact on the UK economy.

Professor Watson added that government agencies including DEFRA, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had a responsibility to provide this information to businesses to help them plan ahead.

Committee member Pamela Nash MP said this was particularly true for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), who she said often do not have the resources to purchase and stockpile large quantities as large businesses do.

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