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Johnson Matthey Technol. Rev., 2017, 61, (2), 78

doi:10.1595/205651317x694740

Guest Editorial: Meeting the Challenges in Security of Supply

  • Tony Hartwell
  • Sustainable Materials Engineering Ltd, Chinnor, Oxfordshire, UK
  • Email: susmateng@gmail.com
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Many of today’s key technologies are reliant on the properties of specific elements, such as cobalt (Co), tellurium (Te), selenium (Se), neodymium (Nd), indium (In), gallium (Ga) and heavy rare earth elements (HREE) – collectively described as ‘e-tech’ elements. An example is low carbon energy generation.

Changing Energy Use

Significant changes in the way energy is generated and utilised are required to manage and control the impact of increased levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, and the elements listed above play an important role in many of the technologies being developed to achieve this. Up to now these metals have been produced in relatively small quantities and any rapid growth in low carbon energy technologies could be constrained by the availability of these special elements.

There is always a dynamic balance between the supply and demand for commodities – economic theory suggests that if demand exceeds supply prices will rise and this will stimulate the development of new sources of supply. However increases in supply may lag demand because it can take many years for a new mine to be developed.

Another factor to consider is that many of the ‘e-tech’ elements are produced as co-products from mining for other metals (for example Se and Te are byproducts from copper production). In addition the production of several of these elements is controlled by a small number of entities with primary production dominated by as few as one or two countries. It is also important to ensure that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are incorporated in the development of primary resources (1).

During the last surge in metal prices there were concerns that the above factors could put pressure on the supply of these elements from responsible sources. This in turn could result in disruption of the deployment of low carbon energy technologies.

Security of Supply

The ‘Security of Supply of MinEral Resources’ (SoS MinErals) programme was developed by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, (EPSRC), in partnership with industry and academia, and a Brazilian funding agency (FAPESP). The total funding is about £16 million.

This initiative focuses on the science needed to enhance the security of supply of strategic elements that underpin current and future ‘green’ energy technologies.

The programme will enhance the security of supply of some of the ‘e-tech’ elements in two ways:

  • through improved understanding of element cycling and concentration in natural systems

  • developing improved recovery processes from primary sources in order to mitigate the environmental impacts of the extraction and recovery of these elements.

The programme funds four competitively won projects that directly involve over 50 industrial partners and more than 25 universities and research organisations. It supports 24 postdoctoral research associates and 17 PhD researchers. The aim is to develop world-leading research and scientists.

Collaboration between all four projects is ongoing to enhance the training and development of this cohort of researchers. The programme aims to create links across the material supply chains through networking and outreach activities. It aims to promote cross-disciplinary understanding and enhance the connections between academic and business objectives. The purpose of this approach is to accelerate the uptake of innovations that will contribute to more sustainable energy systems. Enhanced understanding of geology and mineralogy can be applied by metallurgical and process engineers to optimise the efficiency of production of the materials in forms suitable for use in energy generation applications.

Global Supply Chains

It is also important to develop a better understanding of the complexity of the global supply chains of businesses that utilise these ‘e-tech’ elements. The SoS MinErals programme will produce information, in forms accessible to the general public, on the sources and applications of these elements in energy systems. Raising awareness means that systems designers and end-users will be motivated to contribute to enhancing the potential for recovery of these elements at the end-of-life of energy devices.

Concerns over exhaustion of reserves remain, which could be said to arise from confusion over the concept of ‘peak oil’ (2). A paper by Wellmer (3) illustrates the difference between consumption and utilisation (Figure 1). When fossil fuels are burnt in energy generating processes they are consumed; the molecules are broken down and dissipated, some as GHG. However in many applications where metal components are utilised they can be recovered and reused at the end of their operating life. Effective collection and recycling systems have been established for valuable metals such as gold and platinum group metals and for high volume metals such as iron, aluminium and copper. The growth in the utilisation of the ‘e-tech’ metals is recent, hence the volumes currently available for recycling are low (4, 5). The environmental impact of the utilisation of metals can be minimised through a balance between efficient primary production processes, and effective product design that permits efficient recovery and recycling.

Fig. 1.

Various intermediate stages exist between usage without consumption and total consumption (3) (Reproduced with kind permission from Professor Doctor Friedrich-W. Wellmer, Neue Sachlichkeit 32, Germany)

Various intermediate stages exist between usage without consumption and total consumption (3) (Reproduced with kind permission from Professor Doctor Friedrich-W. Wellmer, Neue Sachlichkeit 32, Germany)

In conclusion the four SoS MinEral projects will enhance the security of supply of some of the elements required for low carbon energy technologies. Another programme (Resource Recovery from Waste), funded by NERC and its partners, aims to demonstrate how to reduce the demand for primary materials by recovering value from wastes.

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References

  1. 1.
    Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, Sustainable Development Solutions Network, United Nations Development Programme and World Economic Forum, ‘Mapping Mining to the Sustainable Development Goals: An Atlas’, Word Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland, July, 2016 LINK http://www3.weforum.org/docs/IP/2016/IU/Mapping_Mining_SDGs_An_Atlas.pdf
  2. 2.
    L. D. Meinert, G. R. Robinson and N. T. Nassar, Resources, 2016, 5, (1), 14 LINK http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/resources5010014
  3. 3.
    V. Steinbach and F.-W. Wellmer, Sustainability, 2010, 2, (5), 1408 LINK http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su2051408
  4. 4.
    T. Graedel, J. Allwood, J.-P. Birat, M. Buchert, C. Hagelüken, B. K. Reck, S. F. Sibley and G. Sonnemann, ‘Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report. A Report of the Working Group on the Global Metal Flows to the International Resource Panel’, United Nations Environment Programme, Paris, France, 2011
  5. 5.
    M. Reuter, C. Hudson, A. van Schaik, K. Heiskanen, C. Meskers and C. Hagelüken, ‘Metal Recycling: Opportunities, Limits, Infrastructure. A Report of the Working Group on the Global Metal Flows to the International Resource Panel’, United Nations Environment Programme, Paris, France, 2013

Anyone interested in finding out more is invited to visit the programme website https://www.bgs.ac.uk/sosminerals/home.html and/or the LinkedIn group: - https://www.linkedin.com/groups/12019044

Information about the projects: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/sosminerals/projects.html

Information about the partners: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/sosminerals/partners.html

NERC also funds an R&D programme focusing on Resource Recovery from Wastes

http://www.nerc.ac.uk/research/funded/programmes/waste/

Links to the Councils

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) http://www.nerc.ac.uk/

Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/

Brazilian funding agency (FAPESP) http://www.fapesp.br/en/

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