A recent report from the UK Office of Science and Technology states that while the UK is dependent on imported critical minerals for a number of sectors there is no specific strategy for their supply, a worrying thought considering the implications of recent trade wars.
Critical minerals are used to create products of strategic importance for many UK sectors, but the UK has no specific critical minerals strategy and no single department has responsibility for policy regarding these important materials.
According to the UK Office of Science and Technology, the variety of materials used in products is increasing, with microchips containing around 60 metals rather than the 20 they needed in the 1990s. This has caused the rate of metal usage to rise in recent years, with more than 80% of the total global production of rare earth elements, indium, gallium and platinum group metals occurring since 1980.
GlobalData’s mining technology writer Umar Ali says: “Recycling is a solution but it’s not the only solution.
“Recovering critical minerals from recycled materials reduces the need for extraction and the energy demands associated with mining – for example, recovering cobalt from scrap only requires 7–14% of the energy needed to extract it from ore.
“However, recovering materials from waste electrical and electronic equipment is challenging due to the low concentrations of these critical minerals in said equipment- the report states that recovering one tonne of indium would require 3.85 million LCD TVs.
“Recovered materials are also often of lower quality than mined materials, which limits the effectiveness of recycling as an alternative to mines or imports. For some critical minerals, such as germanium and gallium, there is no technology available to recover them.
“The report suggests a “circular economy” approach to recycling, recovering resources at their highest quality to keep them in circulation for longer, as a way of solving the problems with recycling.
“This approach includes practices that consider product disposal by avoiding complex metal mixtures, as well as developing methods to effectively separate critical minerals and introducing schemes to make manufacturers responsible for the entire product life-cycle.”