Breakfast Chat: UK Critical Minerals - An Opportunity to Secure Supply
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
On the 15th September, our 3rd breakfast chat - 'Critical Minerals in the UK - An Opportunity to Secure Supply' brought together an insightful discussion on the UK's domestic capabilities for vertical integration of ethical & sustainable critical mineral supply chains.
Our speakers were:
Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy at Camborne School of Mines
Jeremy Wrathall, CEO at Cornish Lithium
Brett Grist, Exploration Manager at Cornwall Resources
Ian Higgins, Managing Director at Less Common Metals
With the event moderated by Jeff Townsend
Watch the recording above and read key points below!
Areas of Knowledge: Rare Earth Deposits, Supply Chains, Responsible Mining, Cornwall
All the things that we use, whether it's the phone in our pockets, wind turbines, electric vehicles rely on clever technology metals - things like lithium, tin, neodymium (rare earths). These are the metals that make things work. If we want we want to decarbonise the UK economy, take part in industry opportunities and bring our expertise and manufacturing worldwide - we need to care about these materials and where they're coming from.
In the UK, we have some raw materials in the ground and that gives us a particular opportunity but there's never going to be a time where we have everything and therefore we need to play a part on overseas supply chains too. One of the big conundrums is joining up the value chain - so far, outside of China, Japan has been the most successful in getting a rare earth supply chain.
Vertical integration is a key word - we may have tin in the ground for example, but this needs to be refined/smelted and if this process occurs abroad, you're taking the cash for the ore and moving the value on - meaning vertical integration has disappeared.
We need to think not just about virgin materials, but about how you link up and integrate recycled materials. The best rare earth resource today in the UK is in our devices. Recycling is very complicated and you can't produce all your supply from recycling but you still need to integrate recycling and virgin materials.
For these processes - a low carbon energy source in the UK is important, both for extraction and processing and for manufacturing chemical for this processing. We need low carbon chemicals - this is something that the UK can play a role in.
Areas of Knowledge: Lithium, Supply Chains, Mining Finance, Cornwall
The UK has to recognise that we are moving into a new low carbon age founded on renewable technology - solar, wind, geothermal - which all require critical metals. The most important is the move to electric vehicles and power storage. Solar and wind are intermittent sources and need to store power to maintain a constant supply.
We have a car industry that employs 200,000 people - jobs that could be lost. We need to build an electric car industry here and the only way to attract this industry is to build the raw materials supply in the UK.
We have raw materials in Cornwall - the gaps are our own imagination - when we go looking in Cornwall we find.
The UK's superb infrastructure is a massive advantage for mineral extraction and supply chains - where in the world can you find an existing open pit mining industry, railway infrastructure, airport, road network, power, gas on your doorstep: Cornwall.
People think the mining industry is a Victorian industry that never changes - this is incorrect. The mining industry is constantly evolving and developing new technologies that are by necessity low carbon.
People are starting to look not just at the mining but the overall impact of mining and whether the lithium going into your electric vehicle actually has a low carbon footprint or not.
Life cycle assessment is possibly the most important thing when institutional and professional investors look to invest in a mining project - they have to say the product they're investing in is low carbon and environmentally friendly.
Another UK advantage is our high proportion of renewable power, and determination to mine ethically and responsibly - this will differentiate us from other countries.
We can only attract young people to this industry by making it an exciting, low carbon industry of the future rather than of the past.
Areas of Knowledge: Tin/ Tungsten/ Copper, Mining Project Development, Cornwall
When I graduated from Imperial College, there was no work in the UK. That's something we're all working to change by creating opportunities in the UK.
Not everyone is aware that at one point the UK produced the majority of the world's copper. We have the potential to produce other metals that are vital for the forthcoming Industrial Revolution.
There are opportunities beyond resource extraction - we could establish refineries for ore - perhaps combining recycled material as feedstock and adding value to domestic production - linking up different parts of the supply chain.
By achieving integration we can ensure that the products we use are made with metals close to home with lower travel and lower footprints.
By establishing production here we can reduce dependence on other nations that may not be as friendly as they are at the moment.
We have a strong competitive advantage in terms of our skills base - in Cornwall we benefit from having Camborne School of Mines on our doorstep, a flow of recent highly skilled graduates, research collaborations and the potential for UK projects to embrace new technologies and be at the cutting edge of doing things right.
Mineral rights system in the UK can be challenging for new entrants.
We need better engagement with wider society - if people want phones, cars, other technologies, these materials have to come from somewhere and the question is whether these materials should come from the UK, where we have better controls or from elsewhere out of sight
Areas of Knowledge: Supply Chain for Rare Earth Permanent Magnets, Manufacture of Complex Alloy Systems & Metals
It's extremely unlikely that the UK has rare earth bearing ore bodies that we can exploit as a primary source - but this isn't the only stage we should be looking into - we also need onward processing to get the mineral into a usable format - into a magnet.
There are some processing stages in which UK does have considerable experience - we (Less Common Metals) convert rare earth oxides into metals and convert the metals into alloys - we're the only ones outside of Japan and China doing this and supplying the global magnet industry.
Rather sadly we (Less Common Metals) don't supply to the UK as there's no one making permanent magnets in the UK today.
In terms of permanent magnets - the UK should identify 3 focus areas:
Identify suitable sources of rare earth minerals in friendly nations
Build upstream processes to get as much of the added value in the UK as practicable
Establish high efficiency, economically viable magnet making in the UK - downstream we don't have a sintered magnet maker in the UK to produce high strength magnets for electric vehicles.
Converting rare earth oxides into metals is energy intensive. Stable, secure, sustainable source of low cost of electrical power would be essential to having viable processes in the UK.
Why does China have such a polluting industry? A lot of it is not inherently technology but application of technology - the irresponsible handling of common reagents - sulfuric acid, nitric acid, ammonia, caustic - the irresponsible handling of by-products of mineral cracking, and dealing with some rare earths that occur in association with radioactive by-products. It's not just China - in the 1980s Japanese rare earth company in central Malaysia left a shocking legacy. We want to bring these processes to the UK to have sense of a greater level of control and to do things right.