Access to Critical Materials

16 Sep 2019 02:28 PM

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:

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:

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