Written evidence submitted by the Natural
History Museum (SIM 11)|
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
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.
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 projecthosted at the NHMin
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
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
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
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.
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.
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