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Lithium now on ‘critical raw materials’ watch list

The European Commission has added bauxite, lithium, titanium and strontium to its list of critical raw materials.

The 2020 list contains 30 materials as compared to 14 in 2011. It is said that nickel will be ‘monitored closely’ in light of a surge in demand for battery raw materials. More details are given in the new report “Critical Raw Materials Resilience: Charting a Path towards greater Security and Sustainability”.

Mapping supply risks

It is well documented that the supply of many critical raw materials is highly concentrated. For example, China provides 98 % of the EU’s supply of rare earth elements while South Africa provides 71% of the EU’s needs for platinum and an even higher share of the platinum group metals iridium and rhodium.

Infographic: the biggest suppliers of critical raw materials to the EU

There is an anticipated supply risk at different levels of the supply chain:

  • For electric vehicle batteries and energy storage, the EU would need up to 18 times more lithium and 5 times more cobalt in 2030, and almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt in 2050, compared to the current supply to the whole EU economy.
  • Demand for rare earths used in permanent magnets, e.g. for electric vehicles, digital technologies or wind generators, could increase tenfold by 2050.

Innovation vital post-corona

The COVID-19 crisis is leading many parts of the world to look critically at how they organise their supply chains, especially where the sources of supply for raw materials and intermediate products are highly concentrated.

Boosting ‘robust’ recycling infrastructure is an important part of the solution as well as decoupling growth from resource use through sustainable product design.

To foster recovery of battery metals, the Commission will propose by October 2020 a new comprehensive regulation addressing second-life options (re-use and re-purposing), collection rates, recycling efficiency and recovery of materials, recycled content and extended producer responsibility.

Some circular progress

At the same time, the EU is at the forefront of the circular economy; it has already significantly increased its use of secondary raw materials over the last few years. Currently, more than 50% of iron, zinc and platinum are recycled and they cover more than 25% of the EU’s consumption. For tungsten, recycling covers 42% of demand while contributing 22% to global cobalt demand.

Recycling of materials powering high-tech applications such as rare earths, gallium, or indium needs to be improved. As yet, results are ‘marginal’ at best. ‘This is a huge loss of potential value to the EU economy and a source of avoidable strain on the environment,’ the report concludes. ‘The stakes are high.’

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