‘Rare earth’ policy omission threatens European prosperity
The ‘roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe’ outlined by the European Commission on 20 September correctly identifies dwindling resources as a challenge to the EU’s efforts to create a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy, built on innovative, hi-tech, green industry. And it rightly promotes greater recycling and funding for research and innovation as responses.
But the roadmap suffers from a glaring omission: it largely ignores rare-earth metals, scarce resources crucial to Europe’s prosperity because these are metals that are critical to a number of advanced manufacturing and innovation processes, such as alternative energy sources and cars. In 2007 alone, the EU consumed 17,600 tonnes of rare-earth metals – all of this was imported and almost all of came from China.
European demand for rare earths will only grow as consumer preferences shift towards hi-tech, green products such as hybrid cars – a point recognised by the Commission in a report in February on critical raw materials. It also recognised that, of all raw materials critical to EU manufacturing, rare earths have the highest supply risk.
Despite this, the roadmap makes virtually no mention of rare-earth metals, and the ‘minerals and metals’ section is the only one without a vision for 2020, or specific policy proposals.
This is all the more troubling because China has demonstrated that it is an unreliable supplier. In September 2010, following a diplomatic clash with Japan, China briefly suspended exports of rare-earth minerals. Then, in January, it cut its export quota by 35%. Following a World Trade Organization ruling, China officially raised production for the rest of the year, but began closing dozens of rare-earth producers in August, while forcing private companies to close or to merge with Bao Gang, a state-controlled monopoly.
Japan’s response has been to earmark $1 billion (€740 million) to fund a search for different sources of rare earths and alternatives to rare earths. This culminated in the discovery during the summer of 100 billion tonnes of rare earths 6,000 metres under international waters near Tahiti.
The EU ought now to follow Japan’s example. But, while there are other potential sources of rare earths for Europe, including an estimated 500,000 tonnes in Sweden, these have so far proved difficult to exploit and have had little impact on market prices.
So Europe needs to do more than search for new sources. It urgently needs to improve material efficiency and lifespan, increase recycling, and boost research into technologies that could provide substitutes. Of these paths, the most rewarding is substitution, though this is a time-consuming process.
One example comes from our university, in Delft, where we are developing magnesium alloys that would not use rare-earth elements and would reduce the weight and, therefore, the fuel consumption of cars.
Initial results from European projects such as ours are encouraging. However, much more funding, experimentation and development is needed, to identify alternatives to rare-earth elements and other materials critical to industry.
Approaches that are multi-disciplinary would also enable Europe to go beyond looking for substitute materials. Issues such as materials, product design, recycling, energy consumption, environmental impact, and socio-economic considerations are interlinked. Addressing them in the same research and development process could reduce the challenge posed by a scarcity of materials.
A clear strategic response to the scarcity of rare-earth metals, with support for research seen as a strategic necessity, would also have another benefit: it would help Europe counter the challenge posed by China to Europe’s position as a world-leading manufacturing and innovation hub.
Dirk Jan van den Berg was the Dutch ambassador to China and is now president of Delft University. Erik Offerman is an associate professor in material science at Delft University.
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