Ensuring a circular economy roadmap for technology metals

The Met4Tech project brings together leading UK academics on research enabling an alternative circular economy to fuel the green energy transition.

Met4Tech brings together leading researchers to maximize opportunities around the provision of technology metals from primary and secondary sources and the management of lead materials. The organization is creating a National Technology Metals Circular Economy Roadmap to accelerate the UK towards a circular economy.

To achieve a net zero-carbon economy, most countries have ramped up production of electric vehicles (EVs) as one of the key policies that will contribute to clean energy. To power EVs, critical metals like rare earth elements (REEs) are used in magnets for the motors and powertrain, and metals like cobalt and lithium are needed to make the EV batteries. These metals and many others are also used in smartphone, laptop and consumer product batteries, meaning they are an important part of our daily lives. For this reason, a stable circular technology metals supply chain needs to be established to ensure supply levels can meet expected demand for EV battery production rates, as well as other critically important applications.

To meet this demand, the UK’s Critical Mineral Strategy was announced earlier this year. Through this strategy, the UK will work with international partners to accelerate the growth of our domestic supply of critical minerals.

Here in conversation with The innovation platformSeveral Met4Tech developers – Carol Pettit, Frances Wall, Evi Petavratzi, Aleksandra Čavoški and Robert Lee – highlight the project’s objectives and how these align with the UK Government’s plans to improve our supply of critical metals.

What is the current landscape for technology metals in the UK? What needs to change?

Like most other developed countries, the UK is not only striving to meet its 2050 climate change targets, but also engaging in the manufacture of low-carbon vehicles and renewable energy technologies. In order for the UK to seize the opportunity to purchase 2.7 billion battery materials. The value and volume of these technology metal streams is as high as industrial metals; However, their functionality is coveted and essential for delivering high-tech applications. Without metals such as REEs, cobalt, tungsten, tin and lithium, the higher value activities cannot take place.

The same applies to almost all new digital and clean technologies, because technology metals are today the most important enablers for the green economy and the energy transition. Many technology metals are classified as ‘critical’ in the UK, meaning those at risk of a supply disruption. They also often have low recycling rates and poorly understood operations despite rapidly increasing demand.

What is Met4Tech and how does it work to accelerate a domestic tech metals supply chain within the UK?

The UK’s new circular economy center for technology metals (Met4Tech) will help the country maximize opportunities by sourcing technology metals from management of secondary and primary and lead materials to keep these metals in use and maintaining great value. Met4Tech brings together leading UK scientists as well as multiple partners from across the value chain to participate in interdisciplinary research and policy interventions. The overall goal is to create a roadmap for an alternative circular economy system for engineered metals (CE) that includes all key players, agent-based modelling, strategic business models, technology forecasts, design options, new raw material practices, regulatory requirements and societal preferences.

What did 2022 look like for Met4Tech? What are the most outstanding achievements from the projects you have been involved in?

The first key objective of the Met4Tech project is the UK Technology Metals Observatory, based at the British Geological Survey (BGS), which will describe stocks, flows and current practices – including state-of-the-art CE best practice for technology metals – and establish the basis for Monitoring and tracking increases in CE-based upgrades.

There is a detailed new case study that illustrates the CE principles’ approach to using novel geomodels. These models analyze granite (lithium, tin, tungsten) mineralization and associated mine tailings in Cornwall, which requires collaboration with mining companies and regional government partners. The research teams have built on the previous Faraday Battery Challenge and Driving the Electric Revolution (grenDER) projects in the UK to initiate many new collaborations and technology studies for Met4Tech.

Efficient recycling of technology metals involves alternative approaches to traditional shredding and pyrometallurgy/hydrometallurgy approach. Connecting partners with different waste streams and processing technologies leads to more innovative recovery techniques and circular approaches. There is also great interest in our cross-cutting issues, including:

  • Social Sciences and Responsible Innovation;
  • governance and regulation;
  • environmental and ecological balance; and
  • The environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects for the supply and value chains of technology metals.

The UK’s first Critical Minerals strategy was announced earlier this year. Why is this so important and how will it affect the direction of your own work/how does it fit into your current work?

The UK’s new Critical Minerals Strategy outlines three overarching actions that align well with Met4Tech’s research goals. The first action is to accelerate the growth of the UK’s domestic capabilities, exemplified by our technical and regulatory research in the Cornwall case study, as well as the overall value systems approach of our CE technology metals roadmap.

The second measure is cooperation with international partners, which is already happening in Met4Tech CE Center, and our strategy is to establish more cooperation links abroad.

The third action is to improve international markets to make them more responsive, transparent and accountable, and research from our ongoing Met4Tech case studies and responsible innovation research will help inform ongoing updates to the Critical Minerals strategy. The establishment and funding of a new Critical Minerals Intelligence Center at BGS can also build directly on the virtual observatory research conducted by Met4Tech.

How important is international cooperation in accelerating the UK critical minerals supply chain?

The determination of “critical” minerals for the UK and other countries depends on national frameworks and takes into account the economic value and security of supply of these metals for multiple strategic uses. The global context for the production and supply chains is important and international cooperation will be essential to secure Britain’s access to the critical minerals and technology metals.

Met4Tech’s overarching aim is to work together in an international setting to create a circular economy roadmap for technology metals in the UK. The Met4Tech project is mainly national in focus and there are also strong links to international groups. Researchers closely examine regional case studies and host international regulatory roundtable events to discuss current developments worldwide. We also strive for international collaborations with several groups and centers.

Carol Pettit and Frances Wall
Camborne School of Mines
University of Exeter

Evi Petavratzi
British Geological Service

Aleksandra Čavoski and Robert Lee
Birmingham Law School
University of Birmingham

Please note that this article will also appear in the twelfth issue of our quarterly publication.

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