Criticality of mineral raw materials

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.

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