Raw material substitutes are needed before the supplies run out

Comment: Why raw material substitutes are needed before the supplies run out

European industry can’t afford to be complacent about finding replacements for materials that could soon become hard to obtain, says Dr Robert Quarshie.

Too few people realise how far many of the devices we take for granted, such as smartphones, smart TVs and tablets, rely on ‘critical raw materials’ (CRMs) to function. Rare metals like indium, to take a better-known example, are present in every LCD, plasma screen and touchscreen on the planet.

A raw material is labelled critical when it is important both economically and strategically, but there is also a high risk of its supply being interrupted within the next ten years. One example is magnesium, which has a wide variety of applications. Although it is relatively abundant, comprising 2.5 per cent of the earth’s crust it was labelled a CRM in a European Commission report in 2010 – a status that was confirmed in a 2014 update of the report.

Why? Because of an over-reliance on supply from China and difficulties sourcing an adequate substitute. Figures vary, but all seem to agree that global demand for magnesium will continue to grow.

The steel industry is one that makes relatively heavy use of magnesium. Global demand for steel is expected to rise by about 80 per cent between 2010 and 2030, from 1.3bn tonnes to 2.3bn tonnes a year. At the same time, the raw materials necessary for making steel alloys are declining sharply. While short-term gluts in cheap foreign steel may negatively impact British manufacturing, the long-term global risk to high-value alloy manufacturing is the availability of essential raw materials like fluorspar, graphite and niobium.

These and other CRMs are crucial directly or indirectly to most highly profitable industry sectors, so failing to prepare or adapt could cause severe disruption to many businesses and many economies.

Without extraordinary research efforts, it is likely to be at least 20 years before alternatives to various hard metals are ready for commercialisation. Because of the numerous applications of CRMs, many industry sectors will hopefully grasp the value and urgency of investing in materials innovation and finding adequate substitutes.

Uncertainties around the ongoing supply of CRMs led the European Commission to fund an initiative tasked with producing a roadmap for CRM substitution that brought together 18 partners from across Europe, headed by the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network. The CRM_InnoNet report is intended to help mitigate CRM supply risks and accelerate the pace of innovation. The experts consulted during the report’s development identified a number of research initiatives aiming at the substitution of CRMs in high-value alloys and other hard metals. The report calls for CRM recycling activity to be explored and expanded beyond the current level of 1 per cent so that supply pressures are eased. Increasing extraction is also needed to meet short-term demand but industry should not rely solely on this.

As we adjust and adapt to meet this challenge, attention should be paid to the issue of lithium-ion batteries. Moving from nickel-metal hydride to ‘cleaner’ lithium-ion batteries and energy-storage devices reduces our dependence on rare earth elements. Although lithium-ion technology is dependent on cobalt and natural graphite for the electrodes, and fluoride for the electrolyte, technology developments in this area are fast-paced.

Options with reduced or even zero CRMs are on the medium-term horizon. But while lithium-ion energy storage offers some protection in the short to medium term against cobalt- and graphite-related supply issues, this may come at a price in compromised performance and increased costs. Also, a high proportion of production depends on activities in South America, so lithium-ion could itself become another CRM in the future.

However, the report suggests that encouraging the uptake of lithium-ion batteries is still beneficial today, partly because significant alternatives for energy storage are only likely to be available after 2025.

This is no time for complacency. We must go on investing to find sustainable, secure alternatives to CRMs and other materials potentially facing a supply crisis.

Dr Robert Quarshie is head of materials and nanotechnology at the Knowledge Transfer Network

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