The European Union has launched an initiative that seeks to secure access to a total of 30 critical raw materials by increasing domestic production and promoting recycling of vital elements, particularly rare earths.
The European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA), a partnership of over 300 companies, business associations and governments, will initially focus on breaking Europe’s dependence on imports from China and other resource-rich countries.
The EU imports around 98% of rare earths from China. Turkey supplies 98% of its borate, while Chile meets 78% of Europe’s lithium needs. South Africa provides 71% of its platinum and Brazil supplies 85% of the old continent’s niobium, a crucial part of steel alloys used in jet engines, girders and oil pipelines.
“ERMA’s most important task is to secure raw materials supply in Europe by identifying investment opportunities for sustainable and socially responsible access to raw materials in Europe from primary and secondary sources,” EIT RawMaterials chief executive, Bernd Schäfer, said in a media statement.
The EU’s inventory of key materials grew in 2011 in response to soaring commodity prices, and has more than doubled over the past decade. In September, the Brussels, Belgium-based body added lithium, bauxite, titanium — used in aerospace and for orthopaedic implants —and strontium — an ingredient for EV magnets — to the list.
The group of 27 nations will need about 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt for electric vehicles (EV) batteries and energy storage by 2050, analysts estimate. EU demand for rare earths, used in high-tech devices and military applications, is predicted to increase 10-fold over the same period.
Europe could quickly become independent on some of the materials identified as critical. “For lithium needed for batteries and storage, we’re confident that we can be 80% self-sufficient by 2025,” EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič said at a virtual conference this week.
He noted that about 15 new battery cell plants, or gigafactories, were being built across Europe, including in Italy, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Sweden, which were expected to provide enough cells to power at least 6 million EVs in less than five years.
EU members will face some obvious and longstanding difficulties along the way, including the tough environmental and social regulations deterring mining, FT.com analyst Alan Beattle wrote.
He cited as an example the Norra Karr project in Sweden, Europe’s largest known rare earths deposit, which was declared off-limits to further exploration by the country’s supreme administrative court. The decision, Beattle noted, was triggered by potential environmental risks from the proposed operations and reversing that decision would be difficult.
“Other problems reflect the peculiarities of the materials involved. Supply chains for rare earths and the like are particularly hard to diversify (…) So when the EU goes looking for supplier countries to produce materials to feed into its manufacturing, it wants stable, environmentally sensitive and economically advanced allies capable of replicating the whole value chain.”
As part of its strategy to reduce reliance on imported supply, the EU is also planning stricter green standards for batteries, expected to be announced on December 9. The new rules aim to reduce the overall carbon and material footprint of batteries manufactured or imported into Europe.