Vital metals: the new oil that could leave the West without mobile phones, electric cars or renewables


Europe and the US will have to increase investment in R+D+i if they want to remove their dependence on countries like China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Indonesia, which monopolize cobalt, nickel, graphite, magnesium or rare metals. Earth. , irreplaceable in the manufacture of missiles, mobiles, solar panels, wind turbines, medical equipment …

An operator holds a piece of manganese ore
An operator holds a piece of manganese orerhjphoto
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What do your mobile phone, wind turbine, solar panel, electric car, anti-missile system and brain scanner have in common? Among other things, none of these devices could be manufactured today without using metals that are very rare on the planet, such as Cobalt, Nickel, Magnesium, Graphite or Rare Earth…

they say Important metals, some thirty chemical elements That the EU and the US have both added to the list of matters that concern them (and many more) for the foreseeable future.

not just because are irreplaceable, also because they are so rare And because its production is concentrated in countries with lower governance standards than Western countries and unreliable in terms of supply, such as China (monopoly of a dozen metals), Democratic Republic of the Congo (produces 60% of cobalt), Indonesia (30% nickel).

This constitutes a high concentration A major vulnerability for Western countries

Pablo Arjona, Country Risk Analyst and Specialist in Raw Materials and Energy Transitions at Cess.

This constitutes a high concentration A major vulnerability for Western countriesNoting that a distortion in supply would affect, for example, the US’s ability to maintain its technological and military advantages, warns Pablo Arjona, country risk analyst and expert in raw materials and energy transition at Cess.

particularly worrisome China, which accounts for 74% of the antimony (defense applications)85% bismuth (medicine), 80% gallium (semiconductors and photovoltaic cells) and germanium (fiber optics and solar cells), 69% graphite (batteries), and 86% rare earths (permanent magnets). turbines and electric motors, as well as light emitters for the screen).

‘New OPEC’

That, to mention only the most extreme cases of dependence, in which the controls exercised by major oil producing countries for decades have so far exceeded them. fourteen members of OPEC accounts for about 40% of the world’s crude oil supply.Compares Arjuna.

And the truth is, China has already demonstrated its ability to turn off the tap at will. Test exports of rare earths to Japan in 2010, important to companies such as Toyota, Mitsubishi and Panasonic, due to disputes between the two on Senkaku Island. and something similar can be said Indonesia, which banned the export of nickel To promote their own battery industry in 2020.

These examples have set off all alarms in the US, as the shortage and concentration of these materials will increase in the years to come. exponential growth in demand Due to the energy transition and digitization of human activity.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for lithium 42 . is multiplied by25 for graphite, 21 for cobalt and 19 for nickel.

A study by the International Monetary Fund suggests that only four of the important metals (copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium) will quadruple in value over the next two decades. Reach $13 trillion and get pretty close to fossil fuels.

Citing some examples of this new scenario, Arjona argues that the energy transition is leading to a re-adjustment of the geopolitical map: Normal escalation of tension in the Middle East will not be affectedRoughly for the cost of energy; And strategic locations such as the Strait of Hormuz will have less relevance.

It could mean our ruin as a society and a continent, This is a problem that today, after the invasion of Ukraine, has manifested itself as urgent.

Jose Manuel Torralba, Director of the Imedia Materials Research Institute

In turn, this expert argues, regional relations, management of electrical interconnection networks and, above all, supply of important metals, So, if the West doesn’t want to be out of the game in the new model, it will have to find a way to reduce dependence.

It could mean our ruin as a society and a continent, It is a problem that today, after the invasion of Ukraine, is manifested as urgent, says José Manuel Torralba, director of the Imedia Materials Institute.

more independent, above all, in relation to China, which, in addition to benefiting from the geological wealth of its territories, Developing a policy of diplomatic and commercial expansion over the years half the world (and sub-Saharan Africa in particular) which has guaranteed it almost a monopoly position on many important metals.

Rely on R&D

EU, US and other countries have no choice but to rely on science avoid that hurdle, And there are four main ways to do this: search for new metals or metals already known for properties considered important, bet more on recycling, improve the efficiency with which they are used and find new deposits. for expediting geological exploration.

Great efforts are being made to replace them with alternative materials, which are cheaper and more sustainable, easier to recycle, says Dierk Rabe, a researcher specializing in metallurgical physics at the German Max Planck Institute and one of the world’s leading scientists. can be made. Respected in the world with respect to important metals.

We have to do a lot of R&D to ensure supply and make us more independent

Dierk Rabe, scientist at the Max Planck Institute and world expert on critical materials

Rabe gives examples of advances such as replacement of rare earth permanent magnets development of stainless and corrosion-resistant steel to replace nickel, by magnesium and aluminum alloys; Invar Alloys, Cathodic Materials Used for Batteries…

And yet, this expert is convinced that the West’s commitment to this area is not commensurate with the challenge before it. We have to do a lot of R&D To ensure supply and make us more independent, but also to have more sustainable and recyclable materials, he suggests.

In recent years, much research has been focused on the need to promote the circular economy. in two senses: for Reusing content from digital devices after the end of their useful life; Enough to recover them from the waste considered lost in old mines.


A mobile contains rare earths in rare quantities Or other important metals, but they’re so rare that you might be interested in recycling the billions of mobile phones in the world to reuse these metals, explains Toralba about the first case.

and the truth is that secondary exploitation is cheaper and generates a lower carbon footprint Compared to elementary school, however, going back to the mines can also be a very interesting option. Torralba points out that many of them can have a very high grade in between and it can pay you to exploit it with current technology at the primary level.

Nevertheless, Rabe says that Merely improving efficiency and recycling will not suffice To reduce the current dependency. In his opinion, 50 to 70% of the required critical metals should be obtained from primary exploitation and should always adhere to current Western standards in terms of reducing the mission and respecting the environment and communities affected by mines…

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