Alternative energy sources likely to increase demand for critical metals

Presse release of 15 November 2017

Crystal aggregate consisting of chalcopyrite, galenite, sphalerite and calcite.

Crystal aggregate consisting of chalcopyrite, galenite, sphalerite and calcite.

Photo: HZDR/Jürgen Jeibmann

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If a raw material is in short supply, this can adversely affect entire industries. This is why the last decade has seen large-scale investment into research on high-tech metals, the supply of which is deemed to be at risk, and which are therefore considered critical. Researchers at the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology (HIF), part of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, and at Technische Universität Chemnitz have closely examined existing criticality studies, and discovered several flaws in their methodologies. They are calling for a reassessment of which materials are to be designated as ‘critical’. This could lead to the inclusion of copper, iron, aluminium and other classic industrial metals in revised lists of critical raw materials.

Ten years ago, when the People’s Republic of China introduced export quotas for rare earth elements, this caused considerable disquiet on the global commodity market. All over the world governments realized how vulnerable some industries are to supply shortfalls of certain resources. Many countries commissioned criticality studies to better understand which raw materials might present future supply problems. The results are intended to help politicians plan for greater security in the provision of raw materials.

Risk factors for critical raw materials

Various lists of critical raw materials have been published. Critical resources are those that are characterized by a high economic importance as well as a high probability of supply problems. High-tech metals such as the rare earth elements, the platinum group metals, niobium, tantalum, antimony, gallium, germanium and indium feature on almost every list. In their recent article, Raw material ‘criticality’ – sense or nonsense?, Dr Max Frenzel and his colleagues scrutinized the methods by which critical raw materials are identified, and how well these methods accord with the principles of classical risk theory.

Whether a raw material is critical is determined by several risk factors. These include, for instance, the political stability of the country in which the raw material is produced, the concentration of the production in a particular country, and the expected growth in demand for that raw material. According to the experts, the ways in which these factors are incorporated are a major weakness of the studies they investigated. “The studies do not explain how the risks have been identified, mapped out and weighted to assess criticality,” says Max Frenzel. “This means that the resultant lists are unreliable. In the best-case scenario, some raw materials previously identified as critical are not critical at all.”

Industrial metals probably more critical than high-tech elements

The scientists’ main conclusion is that there is still a great deal of research to be done in the field of critical raw materials. “A proper re-evaluation of critical raw materials should be carried out,” adds Max Frenzel. “This will require the reassessment of known risk factors according to classical risk theory, a substantial task needing much time and effort.” It is only through cooperation between scientists from different fields, such as the material and earth sciences as well as physics, that the foundations can be laid for a meaningful assessment of critical raw materials based on classical risk analysis.

“Additionally, some metals which do not appear in any current list are probably critical,” the scientist continues. This could particularly apply to certain classic industrial raw materials. At present, the raw materials whose total consumption in the EU has a great material value are iron ore, coking coal, chromium and nickel used in the production of steel, the industrial metals copper, aluminium, titanium and zinc, and the precious metal gold. Because of their widespread use in all areas of the economy, they have a much higher economic importance than the high-tech elements, which are only needed for extremely specialized applications. In the event of a supply shortfall, the industrial raw materials therefore give rise to a higher economic risk – an important aspect in the consideration of just how critical a raw material is. For example, if there is a shortage of steel, a vital raw material in almost all sectors of the economy, the costs will be much higher than for an equivalent shortage of the rare earth elements. The classic industrial raw materials are also used in large quantities for the construction of new wind and solar farms, of energy storage systems and of electricity networks for the transmission of alternative energy supplies. The global trend toward the widespread use of alternative energy sources might therefore increase the need for critical resources in the future, argue the researchers.


On the supply of mineral resources - more information:

"We will be more dependent on resources" - Interview with Prof. Jens Gutzmer, HZDR magazine "Discovered" 1/2017


Publication:

M. Frenzel, J. Kullik, M.A. Reuter, J. Gutzmer: Raw material ‘criticality’ – sense or nonsense?, Journal of Physics: D, Applied Physics 50 (2017) 12.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1088/1361-6463/aa5b64


For further information:

Dr Max Frenzel
University of Adelaide, Australia
Tel: +61 416 730 944 | E-mail: m.frenzel@hzdr.de | max.frenzel@adelaide.edu.au

Professor Jens Gutzmer | Director
Helmholtz Institut Freiberg for Resource Technology at HZDR
Tel: +49 351 260-4400 | E-mail: j.gutzmer@hzdr.de

Media contact:

Anja Weigl | Press Officer
Helmholtz Institut Freiberg for Resource Technology at HZDR
Tel: +49 351 260-4427| E-mail: a.weigl@hzdr.de