The Blog

Materials Are Key Challenge for Europe in Resource-Constrained World

In the build up to February's European Council Summit on industrial competitiveness, Brussels is in the midst of a major policy review. Industrial strategy is the right topic for Europe to be debating and now is exactly the right time to address it...

This article is co-authored with Eric Offerman who is associate professor of material science at Delft University

In the build up to February's European Council Summit on industrial competitiveness, Brussels is in the midst of a major policy review. Industrial strategy is the right topic for Europe to be debating and now is exactly the right time to address it.

Yet, we are in danger of under-emphasising a critical ingredient for success that will help secure Europe's prosperity for decades to come: securing the continent's supply of raw and high-tech materials to industry. It is vital that we therefore refocus attention upon this in advance of February.

To be fair, much of the world, not just Europe, has become critically dependent upon affordable access to raw materials, used in the manufacturing of high-tech products and services in key areas of human activity, including transport, electronics, power supply, medicine and construction. It is a combination of dwindling supplies, geopolitics, an expanding global population, and sharply growing consumption in the developing world that is putting the availability of raw materials under huge pressure.

This issue is particularly grave for Europe, however, given its significantly increasing dependence on raw material imports. To this end, Delft University of Technology last week held a major trans-disciplinary international conference with an ambition of moving this agenda forward.

The event brought together viewpoints on raw and high-tech materials from right across the world -- from scientists and industrialists alike. The ambition was to not just investigate the problem, but also look for innovative solutions. In short, to address how can we continue to provide society with materials whilst living in a resource-constrained world.

It is clear from the conference that China is proving a 'game-changer' in the global field of material resources. The country's growing demand for raw material is almost truly massive, and only increasing, while, on the supply side, it also now produces a staggering 97% of critical rare-earth metals alone.

These rare earth resources are key to Europe's prosperity because they are critical to a number of advanced manufacturing and innovation processes, such as alternative energy sources and cars. In 2007 alone, the EU consumed 17,600 tonnes of rare-earth metals -- almost all of it imported from China. And, European demand for rare earths will only grow as consumer preferences shift towards hi-tech, green products such as hybrid cars.

To be sure, China is not the only country with a near-monopoly on a critical material resource. For instance, Brazil accounts for some 92% of the production of niobium, and posses 98% of the material's known global reserves. Niobium is the key ingredient in high-strength low-alloy steel, which is a crucial for the automotive and construction sectors.

What is different about rare earths and China, however, is that Beijing has demonstrated that it can be an unreliable supplier. In September 2010, for instance, following a diplomatic clash with Japan, China briefly suspended exports of rare-earth minerals.

In response, Europe clearly needs a robust, holistic policy, not least because scarcity of materials is interlinked with wider issues like energy, water and competition for land. This is why it is so important that the search for sustainable material solutions features prominently in Europe's industrial strategy. And, we believe it is vital that this issue is coordinated by Brussels, not relegated to the level of individual member states, to give it more credibility and effectiveness.

It is clear from Delft's conference that technology is essential to the discovery and development of the EU's solutions to this challenge. Take the critical issue of resolving Europe's reliance on rare earths, for instance.

As well as searching for new sources of rare earths, Europe urgently needs to improve material efficiency and lifespan, increase recycling, and boost research into technologies that could provide substitutes. One example comes from Delft itself where we are developing magnesium alloys that do not incorporate rare-earth elements.

One potential application of this is in cars where magnesium alloys would reduce the weight and therefore overall fuel consumption of cars. This development has the potential to be game changing by changing the direction of flows of raw materials around the globe, and reducing European vulnerability.

While initial results from projects such as ours at Delft are encouraging the typical time required to develop an alternative material is 18 years. It is clear therefore that much more funding, experimentation and development is needed to identify a full range of alternatives to rare-earth elements and other materials critical to industry.

The United States is already ahead of Europe in realising that this lead time is too long and has launched a 'materials genome' initiative to reduce the time to market for novel materials. Brussels badly needs to develop a similar project fast, and this might be spearheaded by the new network of scientists, policymakers, and engineers that the European Commission launched earlier this year to address Europe's dependence by developing substitutes for critical raw materials in short supply that are crucial to EU business.

While this new network is to be applauded, the next vital step in a truly robust EU industrial strategy must go beyond looking for substitute materials and include approaches that are multi-disciplinary. Here, issues such as materials, product design, recycling, energy consumption, environmental impact, and socio-economic considerations are key and interlinked, and should form part of a new European Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) on raw materials.

If Brussels addresses these complex issues holistically it would go a long way to reducing the massive, and growing, challenge posed to the continent by scarcity of materials. We hope policymakers are listening. Nothing less than our future prosperity depends upon it.