A critical issue
The success of the UK’s green industrial revolution depends on the UK Government’s willingness to take urgent action
In 2020, the UK Government announced a £12 billion ‘ten-point plan’ that will drive a ‘green industrial revolution’. With the aim of reducing UK carbon emissions by 180 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the next decade, the plan intends to mobilise £42 billion in private investment and includes the advancement of offshore wind energy, the growth of low-carbon hydrogen energy, an accelerated shift to zero-emission vehicles and investment in carbon capture, use and storage. To have any hope of achieving this green industrial revolution, the UK requires a secure supply of critical minerals – materials that are essential for modern technologies, and, for a number of reasons, at risk of supply shocks.
There are multiple lists of critical minerals, including ones from the EU (2020), British Geological Survey (2015), Canada (2021), USGS (2018), and Australia (2020). While each list differs based on the methodology and needs of each country, a few common critical minerals are cobalt, graphite, lithium, rare earth elements and tungsten, many of which are required for electric vehicle batteries, wind turbine motors and other renewable technologies that are essential for the green industrial revolution. The UK Government is due to announce its list in the next few months.
To bring together stakeholders from across industry and raise Government awareness of the UK’s potential for responsible sourcing and use of critical minerals across the supply chain, the Geological Society’s Business Forum, the Critical Minerals Association and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) jointly convened the first hybrid in-person/virtual conference, ‘Critical Minerals and the UK’s Green Industrial Revolution’, in November 2021.
This one-day event began with an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Critical Minerals breakfast held at the House of Commons, where Lee Rowley, Minister for Industry and the first Minister to have critical minerals in his portfolio, gave an opening speech that highlighted his commitment to the UK’s critical minerals agenda.
Back at Burlington House, the conference began with presentations that set out the challenges brought by the green industrial revolution, notably the need for a secure supply of critical minerals (for example, to build new technologies, electric vehicles and renewable energy infrastructure) in a world where demand for critical minerals is rocketing globally and supply, particularly related to the mid-stream refining processes, is almost entirely dominated by nations such as China.
Lee Rowley, Minister for Industry and the first Minister to have critical minerals in his portfolio, gave an opening speech that highlighted his commitment to the UK’s critical minerals agenda
At the conference, Alexander Stafford MP, the APPG Critical Minerals Vice-Chair and first Parliamentarian to bring critical minerals to a Westminster Hall debate in March 2021, addressed these points in an excellent talk. Alexander Stafford has been raising awareness of these issues in Parliamentary circles over the past year and he noted that this subject is now high on the Government’s agenda. In March 2021, he asked the UK Government to support the development of the UK’s mining and midstream capability, to work with international partners such as the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, to support university programmes that investigate critical minerals (such as those run at the Camborne School of Mines, UK), and to release a critical minerals strategy.
This talk was followed by UK Government officials from the Department for International Trade and Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy highlighting the important work they are doing is this field, and announcing the publication of a critical minerals strategy in Spring 2022.
Critical mineral complexity
With UK Government in the room and listening, now was industry’s chance to outline the complexity of critical minerals supply chains and the opportunity for the UK to support its domestic industries. This started with talks that explained the need for critical minerals and the complex considerations of geological exploration and processing (Hannah Hughes and Robin Shail, Camborne School of Mines), and focused on the importance of research in exploration (Ed Loye, E-Tech Resources), environmental social governance (Sarah Gordon, Satarla and Fiona Cessford, SRK Consulting) and international supply chains (Darryn Quayle, Worley). Starting from first principles is key to ensuring the UK Government fully understands all the intricacies in disciplines like Earth science, even if most geoscientists may view these basics as obvious.
The afternoon provided a whistle-stop tour of critical mineral mining projects in the UK, and midstream businesses and opportunities. The UK has great geological potential. As highlighted by Paul Lusty (British Geological Survey), the UK has diverse geology, is well-endowed with mineral resources, and has a long history of exploration and mining.
The presentations highlighted mining projects happening across the UK, with tin-tungsten at the Hemerdon mine in South Devon (Max Denning, Tungsten West Ltd), tin at South Crofty and United Downs in Cornwall (Richard Williams, Cornish Metals), lithium at United Downs and Trelavour in Cornwall (Jeremy Wrathall/ Lucy Crane, Cornish Lithium), tin-tungsten-copper at Redmoor in Cornwall (Cornwall Resources), polyhalite, a fertiliser, at the Woodsmith Project in the North East of England (Elly Shaw, Anglo American), and copper in Northern Ireland (Dalradian). Discussions also highlighted the importance of community relations and how mining companies engage with their communities (Jeff Harrison, Cornwall Resources), as well as the challenges of UK mineral rights, planning and permitting regimes for companies (Mike Armitage, SRK Consulting).
When discussing the midstream, talks by Paul Atherley (Pensana), Allan Walton (Hypromag), Ian Higgins (Less Common Metals), and Simon Gardner-Bond (TechMet) highlighted the ways in which we can attract investment for the UK, recycling and existing midstream processes.
Pensana is developing a rare earth processing hub at the Saltend Chemicals Park in Hull, while HyProMag is establishing a recycling facility for neodymium magnets in Birmingham. Less Common Metals manufactures complex alloy systems and metals (specialists in rare earth elements), and TechMet invests in world-class projects across the technology metal supply chain.
The conference ended with a panel discussion on whether we can realistically achieve net zero by 2050, given the short timescales. Overall, the panel members Frances Wall (Camborne School of Mines), Richard Herrington (Natural History Museum), Ben Kilby (Britishvolt), Robert Pell (Minviro) and Veera Johnson (Circulor) were optimistic, even when the discussion ended with a question from the audience, and one which Baroness Northover later applauded during her excellent speech at the event’s evening reception: Have we set ourselves the right targets to achieve Net Zero? The reality is that even with billions of dollars in commitments from nations globally to combat climate change, we don’t currently have enough of the right minerals readily available to manufacture all of the renewable technologies we require. We will therefore need to mine these and Earth scientists, miners and metallurgists will be needed more than ever as we transition to new, critical mineral-intensive technologies for the green industrial revolution.
We were delighted to see Government officials engaging with and learning from one of the exhibitions, ‘a Tin Briefcase’, which showcased tin ingots and concentrates, and their applications (such as a smartphone, motherboard, spool of solder, float glass sample, PVC, lead-acid battery, mini solar panel). The Briefcase of Mineral Application was conceptualised by EIT Raw Materials and it was an excellent way for people to learn how minerals and metals are used. The exhibit was kindly compiled by Cornish Metals for the Critical Minerals Association.
Building supply chains
This one-day conference brought together an invited audience of more than 100 people from across industry, academia and Government, and more than 300 attendees online from all over the world. Only by collaborating and working together can we agree on actions and recommendations to put forward to UK Government as it works on the colossal challenge of critical mineral supply chains.
Every scientific discipline is incredibly complex in its own right. Often, we hear how geologists, mineral processors, chemists, to name a few, wouldn’t have a clue what their colleagues do day-to-day. UK Government has to understand all of these very complex individual disciplines, how they fit together and what the Government’s own role should be. It is essential that those in industry and academia, from all parts of the supply chain, come together to help the UK Government understand the challenges and opportunities around critical mineral supply chains.
The message from the speakers was clear: time is running out and we need the Government to take action quickly to provide the support needed to enable research organisations, companies and individuals to meet and embrace the challenges ahead.
A full list of further reading is available at geoscientist.online.
• The Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (2020) Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus 2020.
• The British Geological Survey (2015) The Risk List 2015.
• The European Commission (2020) Critical Raw Materials Resilience: Charting a Path towards greater Security and Sustainability.
• Natural Resources Canada (2021) Canada’s Critical Minerals List 2021.
• The USGS (2018) List of Critical Minerals 2018.
Kirsty Benham is Co-Founder, Critical Minerals Association.
This event was organised by the Geological Society’s Business Forum, Critical Minerals Association and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), with sponsorship from SRK Consulting, Pensana Plc, Mkango Resources and HyProMag.