Many UK and European industries rely on a range of materials that are almost entirely imported and are often subject to extreme price volatility. Failing to find alternatives to meet this demand could seriously impact our ability to hit future renewable energy targets.

Examples of critical raw materials (CRMs) essential for the green energy industry include gallium and indium used in the production of thin film photovoltaic (PV) cells. A 2010 report by the UK Energy Research Council estimated an approximate 300% increase in the demand for gallium by 2030, but current supply falls extremely short of meeting this.

There are similar concerns over the availability and demand for neodymium and dysprosium. These Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are now routinely used in the production of magnets for low carbon technologies, including wind turbines. Nations such as China globally dominate in supplying REEs and therefore have strong influence over supply-demand economics, which produce volatile and complicated pricing trends. The supply of REEs and CRMs is predicted to significantly influence the future uptake of the green energy technologies.  Readily abundant elements such as lithium offer improved options for cleaner transport via Li-ion battery-powered electric vehicles. However, this resource requires careful management in order to prevent the demand for such vehicles dramatically outweighing supply and creating new criticalities.

These issues present global supply chain problems. A combination of measures including increasing recycling and substitution in concert with mining is the most realistic solution. The opportunities therefore present themselves for materials scientists to develop innovative and dynamic materials to suit these markets, which in turn can promote sustainable economic growth.

One obvious solution is to develop a direct replacement of a CRM. This approach has already proved successful for a range of CRMs in both the business and academic worlds. For example, the mining firm Rio Tinto has already replaced antimony oxide (a smoke suppressant in PVC manufacture) with Firebrake® ZB. This product is more efficient in both function and cost, and provides an example to other businesses of how existing materials can be improved.  Furthermore replacement of platinum and graphite in batteries with graphene, along with replacement of indium in transparent conducting films has shown great promise. However, direct substitution is not without its drawbacks. Often a proportion of the device’s efficiency is sacrificed, but this in itself could present even further opportunities for future technological development.

Conversely, the development of completely novel technologies and approaches should also be encouraged in order to overcome current and future supply problems. The EU Substitutionability of Critical Raw Materials Study in 2012 highlighted that the time taken between research and development to market-ready products is too long. In order to effectively and realistically reach long term green energy goals, this timescale must be reduced.

Innovation in materials science could potentially allow for substitution of critical materials in a range of applications, although identification of potential commercial applications for academic research is a challenge.  There may be research being done in a lab at present that could replace a major use of a CRM, but if the researcher has not recognised this potential, it may end up not being exploited. 

Both the EPSRC and the Technology Strategy Board identified the potential environmental and commercial rewards from exploiting developments in materials science with recent funding competitions such as ‘Materials Substitution for Safety, Security and Sustainability’ and ‘Materials Innovation for a Sustainable Economy.’  Projects seeking to redesign products, components or services (using substitution or a range of other approaches) are expected to be eligible in the upcoming TSB ‘Design Challenges for a Circular Economy’ competition. Businesses that can use resources more efficiently or develop substitutes will have a commercial advantage over those who remain dependent on critical resources.

Collaboration and communication between materials scientists and a range of stakeholders will be required to develop novel materials that can act as commercially and environmentally viable substitutes. Materials scientists need to work with businesses to understand the opportunities and to communicate their latest research to a wide audience.  Communication between academics, businesses and funding agencies will be required to develop appropriate-policy priorities and funding opportunities.

To this end we encourage materials scientists to get involved with CRM InnoNet, an FP7-funded project. CRM_InnoNet recently launched the Innovation Network for Substitution of Critical Raw Materials to catalyse the European innovation community in the area of substitution, create synergies, share information, promote best practices and identify innovation pathways.  Participation in the Innovation Network will give materials scientists a route to input into the roadmap for substitution which ultimately aims to prioritise EU research funding in this field .

Many questions remain over how we will provide enough energy to satisfy a growing population and how that will affect the CRMs value chain.  What is clear is that materials scientists will play a crucial role in developing novel materials and using existing materials more efficiently. Understanding the opportunities out there is a good place to start.

Philippa Mitchell and Catherine Joce, Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network