Technology metals, which include today’s strategic metals, incorporate minor metals and rare earth elements (REEs), and are present in almost every advanced electronic device and system. Without their contributions, major technological advances in recent decades would have been impossible. Applications for many of these elements were developed long after their discovery, influenced by 20th century military advances. Critical today for the function of modern society, civilian and military, the properties of technology metals are essential components of the present and future.
The late 18th to the early 19th century pioneered the discovery of the majority of minor metals and REEs, yet until World War II and into the Cold War, many of the past and current-day technology metals had little or no use. Today, major industries leveraging these materials include those involved with the production of micro-electronics, such as those found in miniature devices like smartphones, military weapons systems, aerospace, and electricity generation and storage.
The military industrial complex, historically responsible for the creation of many technologies later absorbed by the commercial sector, was behind much of the development of innovative technologies incorporating minor metals and REEs. Putting aside economics for national security, small and normally prohibitively expensive quantities of the metals were acquired for research in the mid to late 20th century. As a result of the subsidies and special projects, advanced military technologies were created and later trickled into the civilian marketplace.
Today, since technology metals are relied upon by civilians and the military, discussion has surfaced around supply concerns in the US and abroad. The issue is well known – the source of many of these metals is China. In addition, the capacity to refine and smelt minor metals and REEs are outside of the US, primarily in China. Past and recent disputes with the Asian nation have elevated policy discussions.
In a report by the US Department of Defense (DoD) titled, “Strategic and Critical Materials 2013 Report on Stockpile Requirements”, the DoD states there is an insufficient supply of 23 materials, dubbed critical, composed primarily of technology metals. It further adds that although some of the shortfall affects the military, it is primarily the civilian sector that may suffer. Traditionally stockpiled to meet demand, the DoD has suggested other alternatives to relieving the shortfall, such as substitution, increased acquisition from reliable suppliers, and reducing supply to those producing products for export.
World resources of technology metals are enough to meet demand, but the US Geological Survey states that current production falls short. From this argument and positioning of the US government, their priority seems to fall on the need to create stronger and more reliable supply chains for technology metals, which could include recycling, and advancing research into alternative materials with similar attributes.
Substitution and the development of new materials with properties similar to technology metals is a strategy they hope will bear fruit, although much progress is needed in practice. Japan is one country involved in leading this effort via innovation in nano-technology, also known as nano-innovation. Starting in the early 2000s, research into this field by the country was propelled partly by its leadership and experience in semiconductors. By 2006, Japan and the US accounted for around 75% of global corporate investment in nanotechnology. The combination of government efforts, paired with world-class commercial and academic institutions have led to new materials that act as substitutions, including one example involving rhodium and palladium, both expensive and increasingly scarce materials.
Substitution not only involves materials, but includes the evolution of technologies. Kyoto University, in tandem with Sumitomo Electric, announced in 2011 that they had found methods to improve upon and replace lithium ion batteries. At a fraction of the cost, their battery used sodium and was claimed to enable vehicles employing the technology to travel twice the distance than those using lithium ion technology; a more environmentally friendly alternative.
The other primary options for offsetting the risk in the lack of US mineral supply of minor metals and REEs include domestic mining and recycling, although the infrastructure to implement these options is far from reality, but always an attainable possibility.
Part of China’s competitive advantage over other nations concerning technology metals includes its large mineral deposits, low labour costs and environmental regulations and oversight that are less stringent than those found in Europe and the US. Each barrier to entry brings its own challenges.
China also has an extraordinary reuse market. A chip used to power a smartphone has other applications outside of the phone. Its lifespan can be extended for years when reused and placed into an LED screen that powers signs, for example. The value of the chip is of course worth much more than the result of smelting its materials. Not only is this method more economical than sending the chip through the full recycling process, but it also reduces or delays the impact on the environment.
A ton of e-waste normally contains a higher concentration of technology metals than the ore from which they are derived. But fully integrated recycling efforts in the US do not exist and so electronic waste diverted from landfill is minimally processed in the US, and is sent abroad for recycling. Materially speaking, this is at a great loss to US firms.
Current processes to capture, refine and smelt technology metals include mechanical separation, pyrometallurgical, and hydrometallurgical methods, all of which need further development. The chemical separation techniques were created in the 1950s and continue to be used today without drastic innovation. These processes have high costs, notably associated with high-energy demand and the environmental impact from chemicals used in leeching and solvent extraction. All of these processes therefore require large investments in infrastructure, and completion of the timely and costly environmental and regulatory compliance – all large barriers to entry for firms in the US and Europe.
Companies across the globe leading recycling efforts in e-waste include smelters such as Boliden, Xstrata, Aurubis and Umicore, none of which are located in the US. 25 US states have laws addressing recycling, although they fall short of a dedicated effort. To create a US option, big risks must be addressed like the initial required investment in infrastructure, which could become obsolete with the advent of new technologies and materials. Note too, that with current recovery techniques it is difficult to isolate desired metals during recovery. The efficiency of the science behind current processes also lacks the ability to curb the loss of materials, like in pyro-metallurgical processes.
Efforts are underway to find solutions to the waste stream as current and new technologies incorporating technology metals continue proliferate society. Already, many dealers in the US are collecting e-waste. But to fully domesticate efforts, large networks, highly capable of being created with modern day technology and data systems, must be created for categorizing, collecting and organizing e-waste. Following this, the capacity to recycle and smelt the materials must be addressed through extraordinary investment. The success of these initiatives will eventually result in lower environmental impacts and decreased reliance on Chinese exports. The cost savings will arrive in the form of government subsidies.
Major manufacturers and distributors of products leveraging technology metals can increase control over their own supply chains, primarily through programs leveraged to take back products at their end-of-life. This can also incorporate the modular design of products so obsolete components can be replaced in lieu of replacing entire devices. Shifting to a service-based business model for products would entail companies owning the devices, and therefore taking responsibility for the products throughout their lifecycle. As an incentive to implement these programs, government investment through subsidies and stronger regulations are necessary. It is more difficult, economically and logistically, for companies to create programs around current regulations, then if they had the support of the government.
This brings us back to the risk involved in the lack of domestic supply of technology metals. If there were another major global conflict, excluding the current conflicts in the Middle East, government measures would be taken via subsidies and secret programs to secure necessary materials. It has happened in the past with strategic materials, and can and will be done in modern times if needed.
From the consumer side there may also not be much to worry about. If materials become exceedingly expensive, the market will shift to create new approaches to existing technologies, replacing what is not economically feasible. In addition, and with thanks to small portable devices, data centers, satellites and other essential components of current day communication systems incorporating technology metals, consumers are becoming better informed. As consumer preferences evolve towards products that are better for the environment and society, such as those made without conflict materials, or certified to an environmental standard, demand will shift business practices and producer responsibility. Efforts addressing these concerns are already in place and include WEEE, REACH and RoHS in Europe, and the SEC conflict materials rule in the US. These efforts will eventually result in stronger supply networks, which could one day equate to vertically integrated US supply chains.
Risks in supply chain disruptions will always exist, and the ingenuity of capitalism will continue to create solutions for risk. As technology metals stay at the forefront of discussions in the commercial and military sector, problems will continue to be addressed by a number of global players. The advancement and impact of these solutions, undeniably in their nascent stage, will rely on the seriousness of the situation and successful joint efforts between the private sector and government.
Bryant Dulin, MMTA Sustainability Working Group