The UK government has launched a new body to monitor the global supply of ‘critical minerals’ that are needed for high-tech industries, including many that are essential to the ICT supply chain. The Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre will be run by the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, and will provide policymakers with up-to-date information on the supply and demand of materials including cobalt, lithium and graphite.
This will inform ‘evidenced-based policy’ intended to develop “more robust” supply chains for these materials for the UK, it said.
The move follows calls by researchers for the UK to protect its supply of these ‘technology-critical metals’, without which it will struggle to compete in the market for emerging green technologies.
What are the UK’s critical minerals?
A mineral is considered ‘critical’ when it “is deemed to be at risk of short supply, but is economically important either in general or in a specific region of the world”, according to a report by researchers at the University of Birmingham.
Last year, the British Geological Survey compiled a Critical Minerals List for the UK. This list includes lithium, silicon, cobalt, graphite and gallium.
Many of these minerals are deemed ‘critical’ due to their role in ‘green’ energy and transport technologies, especially electric vehicles. Cobalt and lithium, for example, are key materials for EV batteries, the BGS wrote in a report this month, while graphite “will become increasingly important in Li-ion batteries for use in electric vehicles”.
But almost all of them have applications in ICT as well. Lithium batteries are used in smartphones and laptops, while germanium, the BGS said, is “widely used in electronic applications in defence [and] in fibre optics vital to digital infrastructure”.
The UK is almost “wholly dependent” on imports for these critical materials, according to the BGS. China is the leading producer of 16 of the materials on the Critical Minerals List, while Australia is the world’s leading supplier of Lithium, with a 53% share of global production.
Most controversial is the world’s dependence on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for its supply of unrefined cobalt. In 2020, 66% of the world's supply of cobalt was mined in DRC. Mining operations in the county have been linked to ‘severe human rights abuses’.
Monitoring 'technology-critical metals'
In April last year, the University of Birmingham report called on the UK government to protect the country’s supply of so-called ‘technology-critical metals’.
“In a post-Brexit Europe, it is vital that the UK develops its own strategies to access these metals so that we can achieve the planned transition to a low-carbon society and meet our climate-change targets,” it warned.
The UK's ambition to create 'two million skilled green jobs by 2030' will depend on its ability to source the materials required by new green technologies, the report said.
The report’s recommendations include “urgently address[ing] the lack of data on material flows for technology-critical metals into and out of the UK economy,” and creating “a single body responsible for developing strategic access to technology-critical metals and effective inter-departmental collaboration at government level”.
The new CMIC will provide ongoing assessments of the “criticality” of key minerals, the government said this week, and monitor their supply. “As the world shifts towards new green technologies, supply chains will become more competitive,” said minister for industry Lee Rowley.
“That’s why we’re harnessing the British Geological Survey’s vast experience in geoscience, to ensure better access to these crucial resources, and support the delivery of our forthcoming Critical Minerals Strategy.”
The CMIC will be governed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as well as an advisory panel of experts providing guidance. Up to £36m is available in funding for the CMIC's first three years.
Sourcing critical minerals in the UK
The University of Birmingham’s report also called on the government to “consider measures to accelerate projects that seek to develop our indigenous sources of technology-critical metals (lithium, tungsten), including updating the regulatory environment”.
To that end, the government also announced this week that it is supporting businesses that are developed UK-based sources of critical minerals. In one project, Cornish Lithium and Geothermal Engineering are collaborating to build a zero-carbon, lithium extraction pilot plant at an existing site in Cornwall. The £4m project has received support from the government’s “Getting Building Fund”, it said.