Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland (SIM 09)

DECLARATION OF INTERESTS

1.  The Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Mineralogical Society hereafter) is a learned society that aims to advance the knowledge of the science of mineralogy, and its application to a range of subjects, including among others the exploitation, processing and recycling of economic minerals.

2.  The Mineralogical Society has approximately 1,000 members, the majority of whom are students, researchers and academics from universities and other scientific institutions, in the UK, Ireland and abroad. Many of these scientists work in fields with direct application to the question of strategically important metals. These include the nature and properties of minerals; the processes by which they are formed and concentrated; extraction methods; metallurgy; and mineral processing. The Mineralogical Society has a number of Special Interest Groups, including an Applied Mineralogy Group.

OVERVIEW

3.  Strategically important or "critical" metals have been the subject of a recent report by the European Union (EU), which identified a list of critical raw materials for the EU (http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/raw-materials/critical/index_en.htm) . This submission assumes that the list of critical metals for the UK corresponds strongly to the EU list. The UK does not currently produce any of the metals on that list from primary indigenous sources, although potentially economic deposits of some metals do exist in this country; an example is the Hemerdon tungsten deposit in Devon. The lack of indigenous production means that the UK is vulnerable to security of supply issues.

4.  Research carried out by scientists within the UK has the potential to address many aspects of critical metal supply, including:

  • Understanding the processes by which ore deposits are formed, and identifying hitherto unrecognised deposits. Many of the critical metals on the EU list have only become economically important in recent times, and thus their deposits have been the subject of limited research.
  • Understanding of mineral properties, which is fundamental to recovery of critical metals from waste streams and through recycling.
  • Development of substitutes for critical metals.

Q1: Is there a global shortfall in the supply and availability of strategically important metals?

5.  Although the known global reserves of critical metals may be limited at this point in time, it is anticipated that as market forces drive research and exploration, new reserves will be discovered and developments in extraction and processing will allow these to be exploited. Global geological resources of these metals are thought to be considerable, although estimation of the total extractable resource is difficult. In the short term, geographical and political factors are of more concern: many critical metals are only available from a small number of sources, some of which are in the world's more unstable countries. The EU is almost entirely dependent on imports of most of the critical metals. There is thus a possibility that supply and availability of any of these metals could be limited at times in the next few years.

Q2: How vulnerable is the UK to a potential decline or restriction in supply?

6.  The UK currently has no production of any of the critical metals from a primary source. UK supplies of these critical metals are dominantly from non-EU sources, and many critical metals are supplied from only one or two countries; for instance, almost all the world's tantalum is produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Political disruption in such countries could significantly affect supply of these metals to the UK.

7.  The UK is considered to have significant reserves of some of the critical metals, particularly in the historical mining area of SW England, although areas such as the Highlands of Scotland and parts of Wales also potentially contain exploitable deposits. Issues of cost, environmental considerations, and planning have restricted mining in these areas in recent years. Clearly, exploration and mining of critical metals within the UK would provide the country with some security of supply, as well as bringing economic benefits to rural areas.

8.   Despite the current lack of metalliferous mining within the UK, the UK is still a global centre for mining finance and home to two of the world's largest mining companies (Rio Tinto and Anglo American). There are many other mining and exploration companies and mining consultancies, of a range of sizes, based in the UK. They are working worldwide on a range of resources including critical metals, are contributing to the UK economy, and are in a position to aid the supply of critical metals for UK industry.

9.  The UK has a reasonably strong research base in ore deposit geology, but relatively little research funding is currently directed into this area. Furthermore, only one university offers a degree course in mining engineering or graduate course in mining geology (Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter), and the level of ore deposit geology taught as part of mainstream undergraduate geology courses is variable. To ensure that the UK retains the skills and knowledge needed to identify and exploit resources of strategic raw materials, it is essential that research and education in these areas is supported.

10.  Promoting more rapid routes from exploration to exploitation of deposits is vital in ensuring security of supply. Efficient use of resources requires comprehensive understanding at the exploration stage of how a deposit will perform when processed through mining, concentration and extraction of the elements of interest. This "geometallurgy" needs interdisciplinary research between geologists, mineralogists, specialists in geostatistics, minerals and mining engineers.

11.  On the subject of ethical production, it is important that mining of critical metals in developing countries is responsibly managed and associated with positive financial, social and environmental impacts. We note that it is possible to use a scientific approach to "fingerprint" materials and identify their source ore deposit. As an example, the German geological survey has used a variety of analytical techniques to "fingerprint" tantalum ores from Africa. Many organisations are working on methods to ensure responsible sourcing, and more research is needed to identify the best ways in which this can be ensured.

Q3: How desirable, easy and cost-effective is it to recover and recycle metals?

12.  Recycling is one important strand of critical metal supply. However, many of the critical metals have only recently become important in components for new technologies, and thus the resource available to be recycled is limited. Further research into recycling processes is needed to increase efficiency.

Q4: Are there substitutes for those metals that are in decline?

13.  Substitutes have not yet been identified for many of the critical metals that are used in new technology applications. Further research in this subject is urgently needed.

Q5: What opportunities are there to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substituting strategically important metals?

14.  Many scientists working in these fields already collaborate widely with other academics and colleagues in industry from around the world. The UK scientific community will continue to address these questions, but the availability of research funding is a key constraint.

The Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland

17 December 2010



 
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Prepared 17 May 2011