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Critical raw materials

Global concerns are growing over the availability of secure and adequate supplies of the minerals and metals needed by society (see Peak Metal: Scarcity of supply or scare story?). Consumption of most raw materials has increased steadily since World War II, and demand is expected to grow in response to the burgeoning global population, economic growth (especially in developing countries) and the requirements of new and/ or environmental technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles. Of particular concern are 'critical' raw materials, so called because of their growing economic importance and high risk of supply shortage. Defining ‘critical’ raw materials is not straightforward and many approaches have been used. One of the most commonly used lists is that produced by the European Commission, which defines the following as critical:

  • antimony
  • beryllium
  • cobalt
  • fluorspar
  • gallium
  • germanium
  • graphite
  • indium
  • magnesium
  • niobium
  • platinum group metals
  • rare earth elements
  • tantalum
  • tungsten

The UK and the EU are almost wholly dependent on imports of these materials. Availability is compounded by their low substitutability and recycling rates, commonly less than 1 per cent. Shortages of critical raw materials may affect UK businesses and adversely influence economic growth and prosperity.

BGS research, collaboration and analysis

The BGS is actively involved in research focused on identifying critical raw materials, assessing risks to supply disruption and improving understanding of the Earth processes that produce deposits of the critical metals. Metallogenic research is focused on advancing understanding of the geological processes responsible for the concentration of critical metals. Recent research projects have been carried out in the Scottish Highlands, the North Pennine Orefield, South West England, Botswana and Nigeria, as well as on recovery of critical metals from waste streams.

The BGS has provided formal advice and information to the European Commission Raw Materials Initiative, the Ministry of Defence, the DEFRA Resource Risks to Business study, as well as ad hoc advice to the FCO and Cabinet Office. The BGS coordinated the RCUK evidence to the recent Parliamentary inquiry into Strategic Metals and contributed to the POST briefing on Rare Earth Elements. The BGS have provided keynote speakers on mineral resource security and related topics at international conferences. See also: Rare earth elements: a beginner's guide from the BGS.

The BGS and Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter have formed a Critical Metals Alliance which will address the growing concerns over security of supply and to improve research capability. At the heart of the Critical Metals Alliance is the BGS sponsored Lecturer in Critical and Green Technology Metals who will develop research on the lifecycle of critical raw materials.

The BGS publishes production information for selected critical metals in its annual publications World Mineral Production and European Mineral Statistics. The BGS also produces the Risk List, a supply risk index for chemical elements of economic value, first launched at the British Science Festival Metals, mines and mobiles event in 2011. The BGS Mineral Profile Series presents essential background information on rare earth elements, cobalt, fluorspar, niobium-tantalum, platinum group elements and tungsten.

The BGS has been awarded a knowledge exchange grant by the Natural Environment Research Council titled 'Critical Metals – Science for a Secure Supply', which aims to disseminate authoritative and accessible information on all aspects of the critical metals lifecycle.

Covid-19 related research

Learning from history: The impact of extreme shocks on raw material supply chains for the transport manufacturing sector

The Covid-19 pandemic represents an extreme shock to the global economy, which is dependent on secure and adequate supplies of raw materials. BGS has conducted minerals and metals research to monitor supply and demand, assess vulnerability to supply disruption and underpin decision-making for decades. The BGS has one of the world’s largest databases on mineral production and trade, by commodity and country from 1913 to present. We intend to mine this information to examine short-and medium-term effects of historical shocks on raw material supply chains and security of supply. This will contribute to understanding the risks posed by Covid-19 to supply chains for metals (Al, Ni, Co) critical to the transportation sector. To further our understanding of critical nodes in supply chain risk, this analysis will be supplemented by detailed network mapping of the value chain of selected metals. We will also examine the contribution the circular economy can make to improving supply chain resilience, by keeping metals in the manufacturing economy for longer and reducing losses through exports or waste. Expected outcomes of this research include an improved understanding of the impact of extreme, global-scale shocks on raw material supply chains, which are vital to the UK transportation sector. This knowledge will permit the development of mitigation strategies to reduce the risk of supply disruption during future periods of supply chain instability. This research is funded by the Circular Economy Network+ in Transportation Systems (CENTS), an EPSRC-funded research network for the sustainable transport community https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/wmg/research/materials/smam/cents/about/

For further information please contact Paul Lusty.

Picture gallery of critical metals