Data analytics company GlobalData says metal use has risen exponentially in recent years, putting strain on the global production of rare earth elements, indium, gallium and platinum group metals (PGMs).
The company cited a report from the UK Office of Science and Technology on Thursday, which finds that while the UK is dependent on imported critical minerals for a number of sectors, there is no specific strategy for their supply.
GlobalData says this is “worrying”, considering the ongoing trade wars globally.
“Critical minerals are used to create products of strategic importance for many UK sectors, but the UK has no department undertaking policy regarding these important materials,” GlobalData mining technology writer Umar Ali explains.
According to the UK Office of Science and Technology, the variety of materials used in products is increasing, with microchips containing about 60 metals rather than the 20 used in the 1990s.
“This has caused the rate of metal use to rise in recent years, with more than 80% of the total global production of rare earth elements, indium, gallium and PGMs occurring since 1980,” GlobalData notes.
Ali believes recycling is a solution, but not the only solution.
He says recovering critical minerals from recycled materials reduces the need for extraction and the energy demands associated with mining – for example, recovering cobalt from scrap only requires 7% to 14% of the energy needed to extract it from mined ore.
However, recovering materials from waste electrical and electronic equipment is challenging, owing to the low concentrations of these critical minerals in this equipment.
For example, recovering 1 t of indium requires 3.85-million liquid crystal display televisions.
“Recovered materials are also often of lower quality than mined materials, which limits the effectiveness of recycling as an alternative to mines or imports. For some critical minerals, such as germanium and gallium, there is no technology available to recover them,” Ali argues.
He adds that the UK Office of Science and Technology report suggests a circular economy approach to recycling – which entails recovering resources at their highest quality to keep them in circulation for longer – as a way of solving the problems encountered with recycling.
This circular economy approach includes practices that consider product disposal by avoiding complex metal mixtures, as well as developing methods to effectively separate critical minerals and introducing schemes to make manufacturers responsible for the entire product lifecycle.