High up the list of potential benefits of the energy transition is the idea countries may not have to fight for fuel any more, as sunlight and wind are freely available.
Harvesting those egalitarian resources, however, will require raw materials concentrated in a relatively small number of global sites.
With that dilemma in mind, the European Commission this week launched a European Critical Raw Material Alliance, or ERMA.
“Our strategic foresight shows clearly that the demand for critical raw materials is only going to rise, especially given the ongoing transition towards a green and digital economy,” said commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič at the alliance launch event in Brussels.
To coincide with the launch, commission body the Joint Research Centre (JRC) published Critical Raw Material for Strategic Technologies and Sectors in the EU – A Foresight Study, which examined the supply chains for nine key technology areas: solar; li-ion batteries; fuel cells; wind power; electric motors; robotics; drones; 3D printing; and digital technologies. The report aimed to identify future resource bottlenecks related to renewable energy, mobility, defense and aerospace.
“The pandemic has also highlighted the criticality of raw materials for our recovery,” said Šefčovič. “To secure a sustainable supply of raw materials, we need to join forces across Europe as we have done for the EU Battery Alliance. The European Alliance on Raw Materials will mobilize industrial and innovation actors, member states, regions, the EIB [European Investment Bank], investors and civil society, to help build our capacities and investment cases along the entire value chain, from extraction to processing and recycling. This will in turn strengthen our resilience and boost our open strategic autonomy.”
The JRC study spelled out how EU lithium demand could rise 60-fold by 2050, cobalt almost 15-fold and nickel fourfold to hit the bloc's 2030 emissions reduction target and mid-century, zero-carbon goal.
The research explained the EU provides less than 1% of the world's lithium-ion batteries, compared to the 66% made in China, and the raw materials for such products come largely from three regions in Africa and Latin America. Similarly, the global supply of platinum – a raw material for fuel cells – primarily comes from South Africa, with devices assembled almost entirely in Canada, Japan, South Korea and the U.S.
The JRC also highlighted the near-monopoly China enjoys in the photovoltaic supply chain.
The new ERMA body, which includes 150 members led by industry, will be managed by the raw materials division of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), an EU-funded knowledge and innovation platform. The organization will identify supply chain barriers and investment opportunities and build raw materials capacity, focusing on mining just as much as end-of-life material recovery, according to the launch statement.
“The European Raw Materials Alliance is an important step in strengthening the industrial ecosystems that depend on raw materials,” said Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market. “The alliance will accelerate the green and digital transition by reinforcing value chains, diversifying supplies and involving all willing partners in implementing the necessary actions. We invite all stakeholders, civil society organizations, researchers, companies large and small, member states and regions … to help us achieve these objectives.”
ERMA will work its way through resource challenges facing various industries and will start by addressing rare earth elements, magnets and electric motors. Those resources are critical to many EU industries, including electric vehicles and wind power, both of which require rare earths and dysprosium and neodymium magnets.
The second such “cluster” to be considered by ERMA will concern raw and advanced materials for energy storage and conversion.
The group will consult widely for each cluster it works on with the aim of driving industrial EU policy to remove obstacles to supply chain development, and the first consultation exercise could relate to the recommendations made in the JRC report. In solar power terms, the study highlighted a lack of cell manufacturing capacity in Europe as a weakness. On batteries, the JRC advised boosting investment in EU raw material production, processing and assembly and the study also recommended increased R&D efforts to reduce platinum content in fuel cells.
ERMA is also planning a raw materials investment platform to fast-track funding for projects identified during consultation.
Commissioner Breton said at the launch event, the EU has considerable lithium resources and “we are positioning ourselves so that by 2025 we will be almost self-sufficient in lithium for our batteries.”
The commissioner was quick to add, however, the launch of ERMA did not signal the EU would be pulling up the drawbridge on global partners.
“This does not mean, however, that we want to produce everything in Europe,” said Breton. “Our resources are large and diversified but they are not sufficient to cover all our needs. That is why we want to forge major partnerships with third countries such as Canada and Australia, and better integrate interested African countries into European value chains, and to develop their economies. Because when we speak of strategic autonomy, or what is sometimes referred to as sovereignty, or resilience, we are not talking about isolating ourselves from the world but having choice, alternatives, competition; avoiding unwanted dependencies, both economically and geopolitically.”
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