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Access to Critical Materials

Critical materials (CMs) are key to UK manufacturing, including for the aerospace, automotive, energy and chemical sectors, which rely on materials typically extracted and processed abroad. CMs are vital components of several emerging technologies, including electric vehicles, renewable energy infrastructure such as wind turbines, and digital technologies such as computers and smartphones. The UK imports most of its CMs and faces international competition for key resources. This POSTnote looks at the demand and supply of CMs in the UK and ways of improving supply security.

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Wind Turbine Plant

Key points:

  • Materials may be considered critical because of their importance to the economy, national security, or if they are at high risk of supply disruption.
  • Rising consumption has led to high demand for materials used in products such as wind turbines, computers and electric vehicles.
  • Access to CMs may be restricted by political, environmental, economic, legal and social factors.
  • Security of supply may be improved by opening or expanding mines, diversifying suppliers and increasing resource efficiency through recycling, reuse or substitution of materials.
  • UK industry relies on CMs, but the UK Government does not have a specific CMs strategy.

Governments and organisations may consider a material to be critical if it has properties (such as being magnetic or emitting light) that are essential for a product and cannot readily be provided by other materials. Most methods to assess material ‘criticality’ include measures of economic importance and likelihood of supply disruption, but some also include other factors such as environmental impact. UK manufacturing relies on CMs for a variety of applications including energy, transport, healthcare, defence and electronics. In addition, demand for CMs is predicted to increase due to emerging technologies such as batteries and renewable energy.

Global supply of CMs is largely dominated by a few countries that may have a high abundance of a given material or the infrastructure required to process raw materials into refined materials and products. For example, China dominates the mining and processing of rare earth elements, which are required for a wide range of products including electric motors, loudspeakers, and computer hard drives. Supply of materials may be limited by the time and cost of bringing new mines into operation, suppliers intentionally limiting supply to drive up prices, a small number of producers, low recycling rates and the environmental impacts of extraction and processing.

The UK imports the majority of its CMs but does not have a specific strategy for CMs and their supply. Security of supply can be increased by opening or expanding mines, diversifying suppliers and increasing resource efficiency. Resource efficiency can be improved through recycling, reuse and substitution of CMs. Recycling CMs is challenging due to the low quantities of materials present in most consumer goods. CM recycling rates could be improved through circular economy approaches, such as design-to-recycle practices, or specific extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.

Acknowledgements:

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders, and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Brigette Amoruso, Cobalt Institute
  • Dr Paul Anderson, Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements & Critical Materials
  • Andrew Bloodworth, British Geological Survey*
  • Cabinet Office*
  • Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy*
  • Department of International Trade*
  • Prof. Rob Elliot, University of Birmingham*
  • European Commission*
  • Neil Glover, Rolls Royce*
  • Dr Kathryn Goodenough, British Geological Survey*
  • Government Office for Science
  • Gus Gunn, British Geological Survey*
  • David Harding, European Recycling Platform*
  • Dr Gavin Harper, Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements & Critical Materials*
  • Ian Higgins, Less Common Metals*
  • Innovate UK*
  • Prof. Robert Lee, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham*
  • Dr Vicky Mann, Critical Elements and Materials Network, University of Birmingham
  • Carol Pettit, Cobalt Institute
  • John Redmayne, European Recycling Platform*
  • Dr Dannielle Sinnett, Centre for Sustainable Planning & Environments, University of the West of England
  • Steven Wakefield, STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source*
  • Prof. Frances Wall, Camborne School Mines, University of Exeter*
  • Prof. Allan Walton, Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements & Critical Materials*
  • Prof. Philip Withers, University of Manchester & The Royce Institute
  • Members of the POST Board*

* Denotes contributors who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

 

Channel website: https://www.parliament.uk/post

Original article link: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/POST-PN-0609

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