My name is Srećko and I am currently located in Leuven where I am doing my PhD as part of SULTAN project. I am ESR (Early Stage Researcher) 2 and also the 2nd Croatian writing a blog for the project (Hint: Read Maja’s blog (ESR 7) if you want to know how many Croatians are in the project, or just read her blog anyway because it is AMAZING). Currently, I am doing geometallurgical characterization of an old mine site in east Belgium, specifically focused on Pb, Zn, In, Ge and Ga. So, for people who don’t know, three of these five metals that I mentioned are actually critical raw materials. For me, the topic of the blog was no brainer: if I was going to tell you about my project and the work we are doing in SULTAN, then I had to talk about critical raw materials!
To understand what critical raw materials (CRMs) are, first, we need to know what a raw material is. So, what are raw materials? ‘Raw material’ is a term used for basic material or substances used in today’s industrial production. They are hard to substitute with an alternative material, and they play a crucial role in our everyday life. The EU assesses the critically of materials according to supply risk and economic importance. The most recent list of CRMs for Europe, from 2017, has a total of 27 raw materials (Fig 1a.). The list is updated every 3 years, and the number of critical materials is growing each time, from 18 materials in 2014, while in 2011 there were only 14 materials.
The EU studies distinguish raw materials as being either critical or non-critical. But that doesn’t mean that all ‘critical’ materials are equally critical. In contrast, German industry divides criticality into 6 different sections according to supply risk and the vulnerability to supply restriction of each material (Fig 1b.). Looking at these graphs, you can easily notice which materials are more critical than others. The best way to explain the difference between each diagram is with an example. For instance, let’s have a look at magnesium (Mg). According to the EU graph, Mg has been a critical material since the first list of critical raw materials was compiled in 2011. Meanwhile, according to German industry, Mg is in sector 2, with a low supply risk and a moderate vulnerability to supply restrictions. Another example: zinc (Zn) is listed by the EU as a non-critical material, but according to Germany industry, Zn is in sector 4 for medium criticality. So, why are the graphs different? And why are some materials classified as critical by the EU and not by German industry, and vice versa? Does this mean that one graph is better than the other? Personally, I don’t think so. The best way forward would be to look at a few diagrams and maybe improve the way the materials are classified. But, unfortunately it is not a simple problem, so there is no simple solution to make the classification system comprehensive but not over-complicated! In fact, these are only two diagrams of critical classification. There are many more, and most of them are similar.
So, now let’s see how the situation is looking today. China is by far the largest supplier for CRMs, while the USA, South Africa and Brazil are also important suppliers of a few CRMs. For example, Europe imports 94 % of its magnesium from China, while Brazil accounts for 90 % of the world’s niobium supply, 71 % of which is going to Europe. On the other hand, 66 % of cobalt and 43 % of hafnium is supplied from countries within Europe (Fig 2.). As you can see, it’s essential for Europe to find new resources. With the SULTAN project, we are looking at ways of extracting critical metals and raw materials from mining waste sites, while also improving the environment, so it’s a win-win situation for everyone.
Thinking about this topic, I came to the question “When was the term ‘Critical Raw Material’ first used?”. The answer to that question is 1939. But if you think more about it, is that really correct? Probably, there is no written evidence of when the term “Critical raw material”, or even “raw material”, was first used. Let’s take a quick walk down memory lane and remember early human civilization where periods were named after the material that was mostly used in that time, like “Copper age” or “Stone Age”. During the Neolithic period, there was a high demand for jade in China. We could go back to Ancient Egypt, where the Pharaoh would send his people across the Red Sea to find metals such as gold, copper, antimony and lead, among others. As you can see, some materials have always been in high demand. They are essential elements which were discovered and used early on, and according to the information people had at the time, it was hard to replace these materials. So, think about what you have read. Do you think that the term CRM existed before?
Srećko Bevandić is a Geologist with an interest in mineralogy, ore deposits, geochemistry, and geometallurgy. He was a teaching assistant in a course regarding optical mineralogy, geochemistry, ore deposits, and applied mineralogy and petrology. More about Srećko