Mineral resources: in what ways do you interact with minerals in your daily life?How can we secure supplies?
In what ways do you interact with minerals in your daily life?
"Subsurface challenges in the 21st century" conference – Securing the supply of strategic mineral resources
Criticality of mineral raw materials
Welcome to the SusCritMat short videos. Now we'll talk about the criticality of raw materials. I'm today here with Dominique Guyonnet from BRGM. That's the French Geological Service. Dominique is the head of BRGM Campus,
which provides higher education in the geoscience field. Amongst others, Dominique has worked on quantifying flows and stocks of rare earth in the EU-28. Dominique, what are raw materials and why are they important?
Hello. Raw materials are crude materials that can be converted into useful products either through processing or manufacturing. There are raw materials all around us every day. In SusCritMat, we are interested in mineral raw materials. Around us there are, of course, the metals that we use in cars, buildings, bridges, etc. But, for example, in the room where we are right now, we are surrounded by mineral raw materials. For example, the gypsum in the plaster in the walls, there's silica in windows, there's carbonates and silicates in the bricks and concrete that make up the buildings. During the 20th century, there's been literally an explosion in the consumption of so-called specialty metals. Those are associated with high technology applications. For example, indium in the touch screens of our smartphones, tellurium and gallium in the solar panels nuridium and dysprosium in permanent magnets that we use for wind turbines, lithium and cobalt that we use for renewable energy storage, etc. Consumption of these elements has seen very high annual growth rates, maybe 5 percent or more. But the consumption of more common metals, such as copper or aluminum, for example, is also strongly on the rise. At current consumption rates for copper, the annual increase of consumption is nearly 3% per year. We will consume more copper in the next 20 years than during the entire history of humanity. On this slide, we can see that this growth rate has been effective for over a century. So, it is essential to get into the circular economy so we can rely on secondary sources of raw materials, recycled sources, and less on primary sources extracted from the ground.
You were talking about specialty raw materials, and I know the SusCritMat program is also on critical raw materials. What are critical raw materials?
So, criticality is a sort of risk assessment applied to mineral raw materials. A mineral raw material is considered to be critical if, on the one hand, it is essentially for an important sector of the economy, and on second hand, there are risks of shortage of that material's supply. And the big buzz around criticality really took off, at least in the media, in the year 2011 when there were geopolitical tensions between China and Japan over ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. And this led to reduced Chinese exports of rare earth. It sparked fierce speculation on rare earth markets because China controlled over 90% of global world rare earth production. The price of neodymium, for example, that is essential in magnets, applications, permanent magnets, the price was multiplied by nearly a factor of ten within only a few months. This slide shows the evolution of rare earth prices since 2005, and especially the peak in 2011. Since then, prices have subsided, but this event was a warning sign for Western countries, which suddenly realized how vulnerable they were with respect to the Chinese monopoly regarding production of rare earth. But not only rare earth. China dominates the production of many other metals, such as tungsten, bismuth, germanium, antimony, to name just a few.
When you talk about criticality, how is this measured?
Actually, criticality is not measured, it is estimated using various methodologies. Criticality depends on scale. Are we looking at the scale of a company or a country or the world? It depends on time. Are we looking at short term or long term? It also depends on the user of the raw material. What is critical for one company, for example, a car manufacturer, is not necessarily important for another, for example, a solar panel producer. In order to estimate the vulnerability of the European Union as a whole to disruption in raw material supply, the European Commission developed a methodology that relies on various influencing factors, some for economic importance of mineral raw materials and others for material supply risks. For example, which applications use this raw material? Are these applications important for the European economy? Is there a monopoly in terms of production of this raw material? Can this raw material be replaced by another one in the important applications, that's called substitution, etc. Estimators of economic importance and supply risk are then plotted on an X-Y plot and a threshold is defined to highlight which raw materials should be considered critical. This slide shows the results of the European Commission's criticality analysis published in 2017.
Then which raw materials are critical?
Again, the answer depends on who you are asking. Criticality is not an intrinsic property of a raw material but depends on the user. The list established by the European Commission in 2017 for the vulnerability of Europe as a whole highlights a certain number of raw materials as particularly critical for Europe. For example, light rare earth elements, especially neodymium and praseodymium that are used to make permanent magnets found in electric vehicles, wind turbines, etc. Heavy rare earth elements, especially dysprosium and terbium, also for magnet applications. Magnesium, for special light alloys, for example, in transportation to reduce weight and to enhance fuel consumption. Antimony, which is a flame retardant in plastics, textiles, etc. Phosphorus, an essential element for all life. Phosphate is a major component of fertilizers in agriculture. Tungsten, used for high-strength cemented carbide tools, but also for special alloys for aeronautics, etc. The European Commission updates its critical raw material list every three years or so. There have been proposals, for example, by Yale University in the US, to develop a common criticality assessment methodology, but this was not followed up for the time being.
Can't we solve this scarcity issue by recycling?
Well, recycling is definitely part of the solution, and it should be developed as much as technically and economically feasible, but when demand for a raw material is rapidly increasing, as in the case of critical raw materials, recycling can only satisfy part of the demand. This is because when you buy a product, you don't throw it away immediately for it to be recycled. You use it and discard it only after a certain time. But during that time, demand has increased. So, when your product becomes a waste, the waste stream only covers part of the demand. So, when demand is high, primary resources, those that are extracted from the ground, cannot be avoided. This puts the emphasis on another pillar of the circular economy, sustainable supply. Mining activities must increase their environmental and social footprints at all stages of a mine's lifecycle. This slide shows a large gold mining site in the south of France before and following remediation. So, there, in terms of mining governance, a lot of work was done to remediate properly. This slide, on the other hand, shows child labor in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So, there, illustrating very poor governance. Consumers and companies should be more aware of where the raw materials that make up products are coming from. A lot of raw materials in the products we use every day are imported from countries where the social and environmental standards are very low. And so, in a sense, we are shifting, we are exporting the emissions related to the raw materials we're using. And that situation needs to improve.
Thank you very much, Dominique, for this introduction on criticality and the surrounding issues.