In November 2010, the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Commons (the lower chamber of the UK Parliament) announced an inquiry into the importance of strategic metals to the UK . The Chair of the Committee, Andrew Miller MP, said
“This inquiry has the potential to be wide-ranging, from concerns about the availability of rare earth elements to how metals are recycled from discarded technological devices, some unfortunately through the use of exploited child labour in developing countries.”
The impetus for the inquiry was the growing speculation in the UK and elsewhere, concerning the future availability of strategically important metals, including rare earths. The Committee sort to answer five key questions:
- Is there a global shortfall in the supply and availability of strategically important metals essential to the production of advanced technology in the UK?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What opportunities are there to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substituting strategically important metals?
Written submissions in response to these questions were received by the Committee and published earlier this month . Evidence was received from a variety of sources, including professional societies, universities, government agencies and companies (including TMR).
Earlier today, the Committee completed a first round of hearings at Portcullis House in London. Witnesses included:
- Louis Brimacombe – Tata Steel
- Tony Hartwell – Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network
- Ian Hetherington – British Metals Recycling Association
- Professor David Manning – Geological Society of London
- Dr Mike Pitts – Royal Society of Chemistry
- Dr Bernie Rickinson – Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining
- Sophie Thomas – The Design Council
The hearings lasted for two hours, and were conducted in two parts. You can see complete coverage of the event here (if you have any problems running this video – visit the UK Parliament archive page  instead):
A transcript of the hearings will likely be available shortly, and once published we’ll add a link to them here.
A few very quick ‘takeaways’ from the hearings:
- There was general consensus that the European Community Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), which currently requires that consumer goods manufacturers take responsibility for the disposal of devices at the end of their useful lives, should be expanded to cover industrial and commercial goods and appliances too.
- Product designers need to work with materials scientists and engineers to design hi-tech products that can be easily dismantled, to enable rare-metal-rich components to be recovered, re-used or recycled.
- In the few cases were product components are recovered, the processes used to dismantle and to acquire these components from the waste stream, are far less sophisticated than the processes used to create the products in the first place.
- Product designers need incentives to design their products with recovery and reusability in mind.
- Local expertise in materials science and engineering is required wherever manufacturing is going to occur, in order to support the supply chain properly.
- Much of the work in Europe on product end-of-life issues has focused almost entirely on environmental issues; more work needs to be done to expand the discussion to sustainability and economic considerations – and the social value of all such activities.
- When discussing where rare-earth projects were underway outside of the UK, no-one on the panel of witnesses or committee of MPs, appeared to be aware of the advanced rare-earth projects  currently underway in Europe – specifically Sweden (and Greenland, if you consider it to be part of Europe). This was despite at least one written submission giving details on such projects (that from TMR!).
- One witness said that in his research prior to coming to the hearings, he had tried to ascertain what the market might be for recycled rare earths such as neodymium, but was unable to find any information on this. He then commented that without such markets, there was no incentive to recycle rare earths, or other materials. I’m not sure that I’d agree with this. If one assumes a reasonable level of purity in any such recycled materials, then the material is surely fungible i.e. is no different from “primary” neodymium-based materials.
- The general consensus was that the answers to the questions originally posed by the Committee, had to be answered in the wider European context at least, since these were issues that went way beyond the UK’s borders, and since very few strategic metals are actually mined or produced in the UK.
We’ll keep an eye on any further developments on this story, and update you as and when we can.