Global concerns over the security of supply of some resources, has led to numerous studies by governments and think tanks. Lists and assessments have been published, but only a limited consensus has been reached on which materials are the ‘important’ ones. The terminology used in these reports is confusing, so we have attempted to create a list defining the most commonly used descriptions.
The term ‘minor metals’ encompasses a vast array of metals, including tungsten, titanium, cobalt and molybdenum, to name just a few. Traditionally, minor metals were those metals not traded on formal exchanges, although cobalt and molybdenum are now traded on the London Metal Exchange, along with base metals. Minor metals usually have a relatively low annual production volume, compared to base metals, and very specialist, and often high technology, applications.
Strategic metals are generally defined as those metals which are required for the national defence of a country, but are threatened by supply disruptions due to limited domestic production. The United States tends to adhere to this definition and cites access to adequate strategic materials as a key component of US national security. The Defence Logistics Agency operates a stockpile of strategic metals.
So-called “technology metals” like indium and niobium are extracted from the Earth and are used in a wide range of modern digital devices and green technologies.
Technology metals is a relatively new term, introduced by Jack Lifton in 2007 and now widely used in the industry. Technology metals are those metals that are essential for the production of ‘high tech’ devices and engineered systems, such as:
- The mass production of miniaturized electronics and associated devices;
- Advanced weapons systems and platforms for national defence;
- The generation of electricity using ‘alternative’ sources such as solar panels and wind turbines;
- The storage of electricity using cells and batteries.
Techmetals Group definition
The Techmetals Group based in Europe further refines the definition of Technology Metals as consisting primarily of non-ferrous metals and rare-earth elements used in EU industrial applications, both in the production of finished goods and in substances used in the process of these goods. Examples of such finished goods and applications are found in the following sectors:
- Semiconductors – e.g. circuit boards, optical fibres, phosphors, detectors, photovoltaic cells. Catalysts – e.g. automobiles, petroleum industry, industrial chemicals, PET.
- Electrical storage – e.g. batteries, capacitors.
- Alloying elements – e.g. magnets, metal alloys, cemented carbides.
- Additives – e.g. glass pigments, ceramic pigments.
By-product metals (or companion metals)
Many of the minor, strategic and technology metals as already discussed are ‘By-product’ metals. However, there have been increasing concerns regarding the reliability of supply of some of these metals. A main contributor to these concerns is the fact that many of these metals are recovered only as by-products from a limited number of geopolitically concentrated ore deposits, rendering their supplies unable to respond to rapid changes in demand. Companionality is the degree to which a metal is obtained largely or entirely as a by-product of one or more host metals from geologic ores. The dependence of companion metal availability on the production of the host metals introduces a new facet of supply risk to modern technology.
Critical raw materials (CRMs)
The European Union is an organisation focused on trade and economic development and leaves defence matters to its individual member states. The European Commission has therefore adopted the term ‘critical raw materials.’
Raw materials are crucial to Europe’s economy and essential to maintaining and improving our quality of life. Securing reliable and unhindered access to certain raw materials is a growing concern within the EU and across the globe. To address this challenge, the European Commission has created a list of Critical Raw Materials (CRMs). CRMs combine a high economic importance to the EU with a high risk associated with their supply. Examples of CRMs include rare earth elements, cobalt and niobium.
For more information on CRMs http://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/raw-materials/specific-interest/critical/index_en.htm
Strategically important metals
A 2011 UK parliamentary report states that “strategically important metals comprise the rare earth elements, the platinum group elements and other main group elements of importance to the UK. Of particular importance are those specialist metals that are vital to advanced manufacturing, low-carbon technologies and other growing industries.”
The term “conflict minerals” is defined as columbite-tantalite, also known as coltan (from which tantalum is derived); cassiterite (tin); gold; wolframite (tungsten); or their derivatives; or any other mineral or its derivatives determined by the US Secretary of State to be financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country.
The upcoming EU Conflict Minerals legislation is likely to have different definitions both in which materials are covered and what decides a conflict region.