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.
Dear Gareth Hatch,
I was wondering why you didn’t include the Iron Hill/Powderhorn project in the advanced-rare-earth-project-index, as according to the USGS it is a potential source for REE (http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2009/1005/). Also the Deep Sands project (US) and Dong Pao (Vietnam) are not included, but there is information available about these two mines.
Another very important thing to clarirfy is whether the numbers mentioned in the TMR-RE-project-index are ‘resources’ or ‘reserves’ ? For example information about the Mt. Pass is really diverse, as Oakdene Hollins Report (2009) and Roskill state that proven resources are 4.3 Mtonne REO, but the TMR-RE-index suggested only 1 Mtonne REO. Can you confirm that the number used in the TMR-RE-Index are all resources (the physical amount of REO in the ground, not taking into account any kind of economic feasibility)?
As I am working on my Msc thesis about REE, this would really help me out. Thanks!
@Sander: thanks for the questions. To answer them in turn:
Only projects with a 43-101, JORC or similar resource estimate, or a historically operating mine + reliable data, were included in the lndex. To my knowledge, Iron Hill / Powderhorn and Deep Sands do not fall into either of those categories. In addition, we deliberately excluded projects that were not at least partially funded by private enterprise, though one could argue that this is a somewhat more arbitrary criterion than the others. When it comes to Dong Pao, I’ve not yet seen a code-compliant resource definition, but there could well be one out there, and if there is I would certainly consider adding it to the Index.
I was careful to state for each of the projects in the Index, the type of estimate noted – if you visited the Index page, and clicked on the names of the projects, in the window that appears you can see that each part of the estimates is noted as being either Inferred, Indicated or Measured, when it came to resources, or Proven or Probable when it comes to reserves (the portion of established resources that are economically mineable) I don’t know where the figure of 4.5 Mt for Mountain Pass comes from; I used Molycorp’s own figures for Proven & Probable Reserves, published in November of last year, during a webinar, although those definitions are per SEC Guide 7. They do also have a 43-101 compliant resource estimate which shows Measured, Indicated and Inferred resources of approximately 2.08 Mt of TREOs – but this would include the portion previously described as reserves, too. If you want to be absolutely sure, you might want to contact Molycorp directly.
I hope that this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions on this.
Hope you are well. I think you grew up in the UK, so I’m sure it comes as no surprise that a 2 hour session managed to come up with no conclusions other than to look at the issues further and from a European perspective.
Must be quite frustrating to have had your submission ignored. It’s quite frustrating living in England at the moment to be honest, economy is a mess. Do you think the government have considered approaching Great Western Minerals to purchase a stake in Less Common Metals, seeing as it’s in Birkenhead and would at least give them a foot into the market? Or perhaps having a look to see if there are any REEs in the UK (do you know if any work has been done around this?) Or sell half the public stake in RBS and distribute the funds into shares of some of the junior-REE miners, I’d be happy to suggest some. Obviously these are just random ideas, but you get my drift. Sitting on our hands will not give us access into this market.
Ok rant over, thanks for another interesting article.
@Kyle: I did indeed grow up in the UK, and no, the hearings were not much of a surprise :-)
The UK government (and probably most others) has virtual no knowledge or understanding of the role of strategic metals, despite hearings like the one yesterday, so I think there is a vanishingly small chance that they would be _that_ proactive in terms of getting involved in the supply chain. Much of the discussion yesterday actually focused on mining for metals in the UK, which in my mind is just daft (with the possible exception of tungsten mining). Finding sources of metals is not the problem…. perhaps working to help develop those that we know about (if such help is needed) – that’s where the effort needs to be focused, I think…
Thank you for sharing this. It is apparent. as usual, that government doesn’t have a clue!
Gareth, to Kyles point re government intervention, how does this compare to the US and in light of today’s GWMG PR.
Also, thanks for all the good work you guys do.
MICHIGAN CONGRESSMAN PETERS TOURS
GREAT WESTERN TECHNOLOGIES INC. PLANT IN TROY, MICHIGAN
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