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Breakfast chat: ‘The Role of Universities in the Critical Minerals Supply Chain’

On the 29th of March 2021 our breakfast chat focused on 'The Role of Universities in the Critical Minerals Supply Chain.’ The event tackled topics such as how academia is bridging the divide between Industry and Government for critical mineral project development. Watch the recording and read the highlights below! Our speakers were:

Dr Sarah Gordon, CEO and Managing Director at Satarla and Honorary Lecturer at the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College London

Professor Allan Walton, Professor of Critical and Magnetic Materials and Co-Director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials at University of Birmingham,

Professor Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy at Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter

Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor, Department of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University

The discussion was moderated by our very own Jeff Townsend.

Dr Sarah Gordon, Satarla

  • Currently we are at a critical point, where the perception of the mining industry is shifting away from mining being the villain to being a critical part of the solution. In the UK, private investments need to occur to ensure we aid the development of critical metals. Government can also help this industry by realigning their research goals and aiding the influx of students.

  • Boom and bust cycles are typically linked to the main commodities (such as copper) and are mined by separate companies to the critical metal industry (which don’t necessarily go through this cyclical process) We do however need more integrated thought processes and knowledge on critical metals in order to mine these effectively.

  • From an industry perspective, when a company wants to mine in a certain country/area, investment in education can help them obtain a ‘Social Licence to Operate.’ However, despite the UK having many highly regarded Universities, we as a nation are being overlooked by companies as there is a lack of a mining industry in the UK. Incentives to combat this can come from easier planning permits, homegrown skills development, and a comprehensive mineral strategy.

  • Universities have a disruptive and ‘blue sky’ approach to mining, and they must receive investments from companies. Government aid can help to minimise the drop of funding during bust periods, flattening out this cyclic dip and keeping a stable investment in these projects.

  • Spin-out companies from universities are critical. The university environment allows for an interdisciplinary nature while also providing support and accelerator courses to aid the start-up of companies.

Dr Allan Walton, University of Birmingham

  • There is a link between the primary and secondary sectors of the mining industry, whereby the mineral processing (secondary) is showing a decrease in UK students. This issue needs to be addressed through having a coordinated push by industries to fund projects and Masters courses in expertise which we are lacking, to ensure there are not large gaps in the future workforce.

  • The magnet industry has been funded significantly by the EU in the last 10 years whereas this has been demoted by the UK Government’s agenda. This lack of a raw material strategy and funding by the UK has put us at a huge disadvantage. To combat this, we need a long-term government-driven approach with high-level funding schemes to be put into place.

  • We have put together a critical metals policy document collating strategies and information from across the mining industry for the UK Government, published on the 1st of April, 2021. However, a national body should have been putting together this policy rather than a team of academics. We need a central point of contact, where these strategies are devised by a panel of academics that can aid governments decisions regarding supply chains and future investments.

Professor Frances Wall, Camborne School of Mines

  • I hope that we are on an upward trend of the mining cycle reflected in a lot of positive news around the increasing need for metals, including critical metals, for the energy transition and announcements from mining companies who want to reach net zero goals for themselves.

  • What is needed is a strategy focusing on joining up the mining value chain so that we can secure supplies of critical metals.

  • UK universities have many links with African universities and countries. A few examples: at Camborne School of Mines we have links through MoUs to universities in Rwanda and South Africa, Commonwealth Scholarship PhD students from Zambia. Instead of having a large African programme we have lots of smaller connections which allow us to do projects and teaching when these are resourced. More connections can be made, and we are always looking to interact with other countries.

  • In this digital world we are likely to see more start-ups who will be able to progress very quickly. For university spin-offs and graduates, there are programs such as SETsquared that will aid start-ups. These are a really important way for technical graduates to learn about entrepreneurship and business and get their own companies off to a good start.

Gavin Mudd, RMIT University

  • Australia used to be the largest producer of rare earth material and historically, smelting and processing stages were conducted abroad. We are not taking advantage of this stage locally and in the future, we need to invest and conduct these metallurgical stages here.

  • Multiple different changes are occurring within the industry at once, including the way mining occurs. This change in demand and supply does increase the difficulty for students to find jobs in the market.

  • In Australia the Government is ahead of the mining industry in their advancements in this sector. Our work has helped the position of the Government in the whole supply chain while relaying these advancements to the industry. This is particularly shown through getting companies to mine by-products alongside the main commodity to increase the project’s overall value.

Article by Kiara Brooksby, MSc Mining Geology, Camborne School of Mines

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