Lessons from Germany: securing supply of critical metals
German efficiency is being deployed to harvest rare earth metals from various waste streams in a manner that should make us envious, says Susanne Baker
Cerium, gallium, germanium, indium, lanthanum, yttrium: these speciality metals sound exotic, but they are in fact core ingredients to produce components for what we would now consider to be everyday objects – energy saving lamps, solar cells, mobile phones, flat screen televisions, computers and other technically sophisticated products.
Indeed, as advance manufacturing has expanded so has the basket of metals and minerals upon which it depends. These are available in sufficient quantities around the world. But increasing demand, the unequal distribution of these natural resources and the decreasing quality of these resources threaten stability of supply.
Governments of high-tech manufacturing nations, such as Germany, are increasingly looking for a sustainable concept to supply its industry with these economically important strategic resources. So it was fitting that on a cold and snowy morning that I found myself in the mining town of Freiberg, close to Czech border.
Until 1969, the town was dominated for around 800 years by the mining and smelting industries. In recent decades it has restructured into a high technology site in the fields of semiconductor manufacture and solar technology, part of Silicon Saxony.
I was part of a delegation to visit one of the central planks of Germany’s strategic response to material security – the establishment of the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, one of the suite of actions the Germany government committed to in its 2010 raw material strategy.
Its objective is to find new ways to secure a stable supply of high tech metals against a backdrop of the challenging situation of raw materials supply. It is researching new ways to use global deposits better and access deposits more sustainably; assessing domestic geopotential and understanding how marine reserves may be mined in an environmentally sound way.
It is also considering how to cost-effectively harvest these metals in the detritus around us – the tailing dams of old mines, in scrapyards and industrial wastes – despite their low concentrations and being finely dispersed.
The technical facilities and laboratories at the Institute are impressive: it has at its fingertips the entire range of methods and technologies needed for processing and metallurgical treatments both at lab and pilot plant scale. Field emission electron microprobe and a mineral liberation analyser enable academics to detect even minute levels of critical materials in samples.
New novel bioleaching technologies promise to break new ground in raw material recovery. Further research effort is directed at exploring new approaches to improve the resilience and efficiency of existing materials. Furthermore, it is hungry for international collaboration, with European governments and industry based outside of Germany.
It’s just as well that UK industry might have an opportunity to draw from the expertise being developed in Germany. This is an academic field that had until recently become distinctly unfashionable. There is certainly nothing comparable in the UK.
As well as leading in efforts to ensure material security, Germany is also ahead in the support it offers to industry to use materials as efficiently as possible – what we would call resource efficiency and resource husbandry.
For instance, the German Mineral Resource Agency is tasked to support German industry, particularly (but not exclusively) those involved in mining or mineral processing, with intelligence of commodity markets, including demand forecasting, assessing global availability of materials and their mining potential.
A national resource efficiency network intends to pool, bundle and share know-how and experience within the economy, within science and within politics in respect to resource efficiency through production, products and management. A German material efficiency agency, Deutsche Materialeffizienzagentur, was founded to promote resource efficiency amongst the public and in industry. It works directly with SMEs, develops knowledge networks and runs a German material efficiency prize to encourage innovation.
Meanwhile a Centre for Resource Efficiency aims to reduce resource consumption in German industries by promoting an integrated use of technologies, to minimise environmental impacts and preserve natural resources. This is done mainly through case studies and best-practice databases.
Finally, another resource efficiency programme, ProgRess, aims to decouple growth from resource use, reduce the environmental impacts of resource use and improve the sustainability and competitiveness of German Industry by considering the whole value chain – raw materials supply, production and product design, consumption and closed cycle management.
We’re not suggesting that the UK replicates this complicated ecosystem of agencies, centres and institutes but it does help to underline that our calls for a strengthening of the Government’s Resource Security Action Plan is not only desirable, but potentially critical to the future health of manufacturing in the UK.
Susanne Baker is senior climate & environment policy adviser at the EEF