A new whitepaper entitled ‘Simply no Substitute? Assessing and Enabling Realistic Potential Alternatives to Key Strategic Materials in Critical Technologies’ has been released by Cientifica, together with Material Value Consultancy and a senior editor of journal Nature Materials. It highlights increasing consideration of the potential for rare earth metals and other critical materials to limit the use of advanced renewable and other clean energy technologies (e.g. solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles). It is little understood that supply disruptions and limits could hinder their deployment. As such the whitepaper is worth checking out.
Cientifica’s Tim Harper is quite active in the nanotechnology space, so it is unsurprising to see this discussed as part of possible solutions to strategic materials risks. For example, an emerging issue is the reliance on scarce rare earth metals for magnets used in electric vehicle motors and wind turbines. Cutting-edge research funded by the US Department of Energy) is seeking to develop magnets that do not utilise rare earth elements by manipulating material structures at the atomic level to improve their magnetic properties (e.g. altering cobalt carbide).
Three broad strategies are highlighted: 1) diversify supply (e.g. so that China no longer dominates rare earth markets); 2) using substitute materials or technologies (e.g. R&D on new alternatives, as per the above example); 3) increasing recycled material content/conservation. The paper notes that the latter currently tends to be economically infeasible.
The most interesting aspect of the paper is its call for new institutions and processes to enable strategic materials foresight. They criticise governments for typically being too reactive. The authors call for a new industry body – a ‘strategic materials end-users association’ – to promote the issue, monitor supply situations and risks, collate information on responses (e.g. R&D), and lobby governments. Whilst it is debatable whether such an institution would do much to address this foresight gap, the call for greater strategic materials foresight is timely and important.
Postscript: The Geological Society of London released an excellent briefing note on rare earth elements last November.