Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by the Natural History Museum (SIM 11)

BACKGROUND AND INTERESTS

1. The Natural History Museum (NHM) has a mission to maintain and develop its natural history collections to be used to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.

2. The NHM has strong links to the mineral deposits research community in the UK through its association with the Mineral Deposits Studies Group (MDSG), the Mineralogical Society and the Geological Society, and its scientists have contributed to other submissions to the Committee from these groups.

3. The Department of Mineralogy at the NHM provides a national capability in the characterisation and research into naturally occurring minerals, rocks and ores. The Museum's collections are de facto the national collection of specimens of minerals rocks and ores, containing more than 550 type specimens of the 4~4500 mineral species identified worldwide. These collections form the basis for active research programmes where there is a fundamental need to understand the natural geodiversity of minerals, how they form, how they break down and how metals are incorporated into them.

4. Research and curation scientists in the Department of Mineralogy are influential members of UK-based and international mineralogical forums; for example we have a representative on the management group of the internationally respected web-based resource Mindat, which now forms an authoritative reference database of natural mineral species and their worldwide provenance. World-class laboratories underpin the research and curation efforts at the Museum meaning it has the capability to fully characterise natural minerals, a unique combined facility in the UK.

5. The NHM is active with both research and consulting projects with the minerals industry worldwide and so provides advice on diverse issues related to mineral occurrence and methodologies of processing. The NHM works with other UK agencies, for example it has provided specialists to work on contract projects with the British Geological Survey, where in-house expertise was lacking.

6. The Centre for Russian and Central Eurasian Mineral Studies (CERCAMS) is embedded in the Department of Mineralogy and is a research network that covers the CIS (Russia, Central Asia), Mongolia and China; all key emerging suppliers of metals to world markets. CERCAMS holds advanced knowledge on the mineral wealth of these regions and has an unparalleled collaborative network established with institutions in the region.

7. The NHM generates the world's only comprehensive database on carbonatites which are the most important host-rocks for Niobium and Tantalum deposits as well as containing vast reserves of Rare Earth Elements (REE).

Question 1: Is there a global shortfall in the supply and availability of strategically important metals essential to the production of advanced technology in the UK?

8. Projections suggest that there may be shortfalls of supply of some commodities in the medium term as indicated by the EU ad-hoc working group which reviewed "Critical raw materials" in 20101. However, it should be pointed out that in general terms limits to current mineral extraction are a function of the energy costs of extracting at a profit. Figure 1 shows a graphical representation of this, indicating that supplies of most metals are actually virtually limitless but there is a "mineralogical barrier" to extraction defined by the inability to extract the metal feasibly below a certain concentration level.

Figure 1—Graphic representation of distribution of elements on the planet. Red area shows the limit to current extraction levels (at high mineral grade). The yellow area indicates where the bulk of the planet's resources of metal lie, at concentrations either uneconomic or unfeasible to extract, largely a result of energy costs (sourced from HCSS Report No. 02/1/10 Scarcity of Minerals2).

9. Shortfalls in supply are often due to industrial reliance on specific mineral commodities which provide the metal of interest to an existing established commercial process. In many cases a high specificity of the mineral commodity mined and traded can result in either corporate or geographical monopolies of supply or in some case both. This is because often the rare mineral commodities are only economically concentrated in particular parts of the earths crust. A specific example would be the REE, which are essential for the manufacture of the magnets in such diverse products as computer disk-drives and new wind-turbines. 93% of REE supply is currently from China. A similar case exists for Niobium, essential to many electronic components, for which Brazil currently supplies 92% of world production.

10. We need to develop a better knowledge of the diversity of minerals containing the specific metal needed and their worldwide distribution. This knowledge would enable us to identify new locations for the potential supply of future metal needs. Characterised collections of naturally occurring mineral species such as those held at the NHM form important research resources for this type of initiative.

11. Industry responds to supply pressures with investigation of new supply streams, either by utilising substitute minerals from which the element is sourced or in some cases substituting another element (eg Palladium substituting for Platinum in vehicle catalytic converters). However, such work needs research which can be pursued in industry-academic partnerships. One fruitful area of research would be to seek new mineral sources for strategic metals which may be held in known but currently unexploited deposits (or waste materials). The key to unlocking these potential supplies is the development of alternative processing technologies that might successfully be employed on the new resource streams. An example of this is a project—hosted at the NHM—in which the application of new hydrometallurgical technologies to the processing of oxide Nickel ores (a technology pioneered by a UK-based Plc) is being investigated by our mineralogists. This work results in formerly uneconomic sources of Nickel, which are actually abundant in the eastern Mediterranean area of Europe, becoming attractive for future processing. Another good example is the NHM mineralogical work on the new Lithium mineral Jadarite, also carried out for a UK-based Plc. Lithium is currently sourced from the mineral spodumene which is mined in Canada and Australia but also from playa brines in South America. The recent identification of a potential new source of Lithium in Europe means that an alternative supply from a previously unknown source is possible, should the alternatives become unavailable. With more encouragement, more of this type of work could cover the full range of strategic metals, establishing a complete "geodiversity" inventory of strategic metal mineral species that may form future extractable reserves, which might be mapped against diversity of supply, cost of recovery and other factors.

12. A vertically integrated approach to mineral deposit research is needed with linkages between geologists, metallurgists and engineers in order to be able develop new innovative processing techniques. This combined research of "geometallurgy" could allow either the substitution of new mineral sources for a particular metal or alternatively have the effect of being able to move the "mineralogical barrier" shown in Figure 1 significantly to the left through novel, more energy efficient processing. Research council funding might be focused towards this area of applied mineral science. Current barriers too this could be the fact that this type of research bridges the funding briefs of NERC and EPSRC which may dissuade research projects in this field.

Question 2: How vulnerable is the UK to a potential decline or restriction in the supply of strategically important metals? What should the Government be doing to safeguard against this and to ensure supplies are produced ethically?

13. The UK is vulnerable to restriction of strategically important minerals. The UK currently produces none of the strategic metals and the secured sources within the EU yield only minor amounts of Antimony and Tungsten but no Niobium, Tantalum, REE or Platinum Group Elements (PGE). It is therefore imperative that UK institutions, like the NHM who have specialist knowledge and skills applicable to the development of secure resource streams play a role in research projects where such commodities are being evaluated.

14. A key problem in assessing the reserve and resource issues that face strategic metals is the current patchy level of knowledge about resources on a global scale. Whilst the "western" economies are relatively transparent about their resources, key countries such as Russia and China have historically considered resource statistics as state secrets and consequently it is still even now difficult to ascertain accurate data for these territories (for example PGE supply was a state secret in Russia until 2005). The NHM's CERCAMS group in collaboration with Russian other CIS state entities has developed a internationally recognised expertise in generating deposit and resource information for the CIS, China and Mongolia. It is apparent that commodity companies from Asian manufacturing economies of China, Korea and Japan are aggressively acquiring interests in both mineral deposits worldwide and taking large equity stakes in international resource companies, including UK-based companies (eg Chinalco 12% of Rio Tinto). The German government acknowledge this lack of market transparency in their review of strategic metal supply for German industry and announced in April 2010 that "it is important that we increase transparency in the resource markets". In the last five years some countries have changed their investment and mining laws to protect resources that are seen as being of national economic and strategic importance by limiting international investment in key deposits (eg Russia's Foreign Strategic Investment Law - 2008).

15. With regard to ethical supply, it is possible to provenance ("fingerprint") certain mineral commodities using information on their chemistries and associations. It may be possible to implement a "certificate of origin" scheme that could track minerals along the supply chain from mine to market. Industry-led efforts in this field include pilot schemes by the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition and the International Tin Research Institute. The Kimberley Process, set up in 2003, addresses the trade in so-called blood diamonds and is the most high-profile of this type of initiative. The US has partially responded to ethical issues of mineral supply by recently introducing the Reform and Consumer Protection Act (July 2010), which requires any US-listed company to publicly disclose whether its products contain materials sourced from zones of conflict. The type of forensic mineralogy to track where minerals might be sourced from demands good analytical information from material, cross-referenced with well characterised and provenanced samples. The laboratories and national collections of the NHM can provide both the analyses and reference material for such an initiative.

16. New minerals can be substituted as new sources of supply, on example is the extraction of Nickel from lateritic ores which is set to overtake the amount of Nickel extracted from sulphide ores in the next three to five years3 . There is a need for more information about the mineral diversity ("geodiversity") of the strategic metals so that a better assessment can be made concerning their distribution and the location of future new resources. Again, characterised collections of these naturally occurring are needed for such assessments.

Question 3: How desirable, easy and cost-effective is it to recover and recycle metals from discarded products? How can this be encouraged? Where recycling currently takes place, what arrangements need to be in place to ensure it is done cost-effectively, safely and ethically?

17. The recycling of metals from discarded products is essential. However, another source of metals may be waste mineral products.

18. Waste mineral products in some cases can form a future resource. We therefore need an assessment of potential supply of strategic metals not only from recycled products but also from discarded mine waste. Waste may be in the form of unprocessed mine rock dumps or slimes produced during the processing of other commodities and may actually be an untapped resource of some of the strategic metals. Across the EU states and elsewhere such waste material may exist but needs careful characterisation to assess its suitability. A more careful inventory of waste materials should be made to assess suitability as new resources.

Question 4: Are there substitutes for those metals that are in decline in technological products manufactured in the UK? How can these substitutes be more widely applied?

19. As stated in point 16 above, an understanding of the full geodiversity of possible natural source materials (minerals) is needed to be able to assess our future commodity needs to enable UK industry to rapidly respond to future trends.

20. The application of substitute supplies needs buy-in from industry to change the currently traditional sources and therefore support for industry-academia research into these new processing streams and methods is therefore necessary.

Question 5: What opportunities are there to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substituting strategically important metals?

21. Applied research into mineral deposits clearly aids the exploration for new resources. UK academic institutions have a strong track record in collaborative research projects with UK-based international mining companies at a range of levels. The UK government must ensure support for this research is strengthened from the current low base via focused funding for universities and public research in order to continue helping the development of new resource streams. Encouragement to create vertically integrated research which would look at metal sources from their discovery through to formation of a successful processing and waste management strategy is essential and we highlight the emerging research discipline of "geometallurgy" which unites geologists, mineralogists, metallurgists and mineral processing engineers in the search for the efficient extraction of metals.

22. Waste streams from past mining and metal processing in the UK and elsewhere could potentially be substitute sources for some of the strategically important metals currently obtained elsewhere. One example identified by CERCAMS at the NHM is the extensive waste dumps from copper mining in Central Asia, a potential alternative source for PGEs and thus the development of better collaborative research links with countries where large industrial waste streams are known (eg CIS countries) may bring opportunity for UK research teams and industrial groups.

CONCLUSIONS

23. In conclusion, the UK should act swiftly to implement measures or make specific recommendations in order to mitigate some of the supply issues faced. Much of this can be done by encouraging closer research links between all parties involved in the location, extraction, processing and trading of metals. Specific research initiatives may be warranted in the field of "geometallurgy" where the UK could make a greater contribution using our existing research centres of excellence, such as the NHM. The NHM is ready to help contribute towards these aims and would welcome the chance to discuss this further.

24. Underpinning the national research capability relating to the resource sector is essential to secure facilities and expertise to advise on strategic metal sources and supply. Focused government support for the mineral deposit research base in the UK public sector, including the NHM and in universities needs to be maintained and in some areas increased or national capability will be lost. Applied research, not close enough to market to be directly supported by industry, has been poorly supported by NERC in recent years, largely as the research may bridge between research council remits. We urge there to be more attention paid to this. Research in this sector is critical both for the maintenance of capacity and also for tackling the challenges of efficient extraction of resources in an environmentally sustainable way, with less waste generation and more carbon neutral processing.

25. In line with other EU states (eg Germany and France), the UK government might consider installing a qualified advisory group (agency, commission, committee) bringing together the best expertise from, for example, the British Geological Survey, universities, the NHM, other research institutions, NERC and EPSRC together with experts from the UK-based minerals industry, commodity traders, metal processors and the end users in order to regularly monitor and advise on issues.

REFERENCES

1 Critical Raw Materials for the EU, Report of the ad-hoc Working Group on defining critical raw materials, European Commission, July 2010: http://ec.europa/enterprise/policies/raw-materials/documents/index_en.htm

2 Scarcity of Minerals: A strategic security issue, 2009: The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies: No. 02|01|10

3 The Past and the Future of Nickel Laterites: PDAC 2004 International Convention presentation: Dr Ashok D Dalvi; Dr W Gordon Bacon; Mr Robert C Osborne, Inco Limited

Department of Mineralogy
Natural History Museum

17 December 2010



 
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Prepared 17 May 2011