Undermining Infrastructure: Avoiding the Scarcity Trap

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Civil Engineering


Our current infrastructure cannot deliver the adaptable, low-carbon future planned by the Government. Existing stock does not make best use of resources and materials; flows of material in and out of the system are poorly understood; and greater vulnerability caused by increased reliance on scarce materials (e.g. rare metals) is ignored. Low carbon infrastructure is being planned without taking into account the availability of materials required to support it. Measures taken to change the properties (embodied carbon/energy, strength etc) of materials, taken in good faith, can have unpredictable effects on input, stock and output of scarce resources in infrastructure. Unfortunate policy decisions are already being taken that will lock us into costly solutions. Left untreated, this will throw up huge obstacles to developing a sustainable infrastructure. We need to fully understand the material barriers to achieving adaptable low carbon infrastructure and propose approaches and systems to overcome these barriers.

We will enhance the established stocks and flows (S&F) methodology used in industrial ecology by adding layers of extra information on material properties and vulnerability. We will extend S&F to include measures of quality (in terms of material properties and age) and vulnerability (in terms of scarcity, geo-politics and substitutability). This will transform S&F from being concerned only with quantities of materials, to capturing quality and availability as well. This will in turn allow us to analyse how changes in the properties of the materials used in a system may introduce vulnerabilities, associated with materials supply, waste management or stock changes. More excitingly, it will allow us to design more resilient solutions 'designing out' pinch-points in materials supply; it will inform CO2 policy making to encourage best value for money emission reduction; and it will provide a robust new framework for analysis of complex interconnected infrastructure systems.

This methodology will be tested on three case studies to refine the initial approach and demonstrate its applicability to the challenge described in this proposal. The case studies will include:

- Some simple, proof-of-concept physical infrastructure systems (such as a bridge)
- More detailed of a system; for example a power station; and
- a system of systems; a place that interacts with a number of different infrastructure systems (for example a neighbourhood or city).

The case studies will be analysed to identify existing stocks, assess the vulnerability of 'replacement' infrastructures and identify new proposals and solutions for alternative approaches. We recognise that the boundaries of the systems and flows may be difficult to define in this project. However, we consider that it would be more important to demonstrate the approach than to define the boundaries absolutely. This demonstration will help us to understand how this approach could be used by policy makers and decision makers and inform more detailed studies in the future.

Some single sector stocks and flows studies have been performed, and the apparent vulnerability of particular material supplies has been established (e.g. DEFRA A review of resource risks to business) but these have not been 'joined together' to produce a full picture of the vulnerability and adaptability of infrastructure. The proposal is adventurous in that the development of the complex methodology required, while based on a combination of well-understood approaches (S&F, LCA etc), will be challenging and require intellectual clarity from three contrasting disciplines: materials science, industrial ecology and environmental engineering.

Our aim is to produce a new, low carbon, adaptive design paradigm for hyper-efficient use of valuable materials. This will lead to a step change in resource use, reduce the vulnerability of future infrastructure, reduce CO2 emissions and enable adaptability.

Planned Impact

The principal impact of this project will be to prevent our proposed new low-carbon infrastructure being paradoxically crippled by shortages of rare materials, by ensuring that we have the design and analysis tools to take proper account of the stocks, flows, locations, vulnerabilities and qualities of these materials as they flow through infrastructure. As such, the beneficiary is UK plc in general and all its stakeholders.

The public will benefit from reduced infrastructure 'downtime'. An efficient, adaptable and sustainable infrastructure will be able to more reliably deliver the services, on which we all rely - power, comms, water and so on - without causing unnecessary damage to the environment.

Policy makers will benefit from a more advanced tool that will allow them to reliably predict and mitigate infrastructure failures (particular non- delivery of new, low carbon infrastructure) caused by shortages of materials. It will also allow them to predict which materials are likely to become scarcer as a result of their inclusion into new infrastructure and plan accordingly, e.g. by designing out materials that are likely to become scarce either due to increased demand, geo-political risk or environmental pressure.

Infrastructure asset stakeholders (i.e., the Civil Engineering and associated industries such as utilities providers) will benefit from a tool that allows them to design, plan and manage the huge expansion and modification programme required to fulfil the Government's low-carbon obligations without introducing new problems caused by material shortages. It will also allow them to reduce the costs associated with waste management by helping them to recover value from waste (e.g. by reusing components or 'urban mining') and reducing the total volume of waste. It will aid financial planning to cope with projected changes in the price of key materials by analysing and predicting current and future scarcity and where possible designing materials out of infrastructure or identifying substitutes.
Description We have discovered that the roll-out of low-carbon technology - wind turbines, electric vehicles - in the UK and beyond is at serious risk of being constrained by shortages of key materials such as lithium and cobalt (for batteries) and rare-earth metals (for high-performance permanent magnets used in electric motors). We developed a method that allows companies, policy makers or academics to analyse the degree to which their reliance on certain technologies will make their plans vulnerable to disruption by limited supply of critical materials. The method can be applied at the system (infrastructure), technology or materials level depending on the interests of the analyst; we frequently find that analysing at different levels for the same goal often gives different results and suggestions for action.
Exploitation Route They should be used by those responsible for supply chains that involve critical materials such as lithium, cobalt, REM's, certain aggregates etc in order to protect their medium and long-term interests from disruption.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Electronics,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Transport

URL http://sure-infrastructure.leeds.ac.uk/ui/
Description Issues surrounding criticality and material security have been disseminated to wide audiences, including government departments such as the Highways Agency (who commissioned a report into their exposure to critical materials) and the Treasury (whose Guide to Valuing Infrastructure Spend included references to our work). Issues relating to criticality are now included in the Cambridge University CEM industrial masters programme. We are currently working on guidance for the DfT on how criticality will affect the roll-out of electric vehicles in the UK. We are also currently working with DEFRA via the Resources and Waste Strategy to determine how criticality can be included (directly or indirectly) within their resources metrics. We would expect to contribute to any forthcoming update of the DEFRA Resource Security Action Plan (last updated 2012).
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Construction,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description Appointed Fellow on University of Cambridge Construction Engineering Masters programme.
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The CEM programme is a Master-level qualification for construction and manufacturing industry professionals. I was appointed to deliver material and supervise dissertations in Critical Materials and Automation of Construction.
URL https://www.construction.cam.ac.uk/cem-programme
Description ARCC-CN Network Co-Production of Evidence with Policy and Practice
Amount £4,018 (GBP)
Funding ID R29834/CN002 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 11/2014
Description C-VORR: Complex-Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery (Catalyst)
Amount £73,191 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/K015834/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2013 
End 10/2013
Description Infrastructure, economics, environment and mathematics: Bridging the Gaps
Amount £12,396 (GBP)
Organisation University of Leeds 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2012 
End 02/2013
Description Potential Infrastructure Mining Systems (PIMS)
Amount £7,500 (GBP)
Organisation Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) 
Sector Public
Country Japan
Start 06/2013 
End 09/2013
Description iBUILD - Infrastructure Business Models for Local Delivery
Amount £3,567,862 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/K012398/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2013 
End 07/2017
Description Introducing the Undermining Infrastructure Project: avoiding the scarcity trap 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Dissemination of the project objectives and preliminary outcomes to the ARCC network.

Increased involvement with ARCC leading to secondment into DfT
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://www.arcc-cn.org.uk/arcc-cn-conference-2012/
Description Invited talk to Royal Society event "Decarbonising UK energy: effective technology and policy options for achieving a zero-carbon future" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Talk entitled "Between a rock and a hard place:  options for reducing the carbon emissions associated with the use of cement and concrete" to meeting of the Royal Society "Science+" series, aimed at senior policy-makers but open to the public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2017/10/decarbonising-uk-energy/
Description SuRe-Infrastructure website and wiki: UI section 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Repository for UI publications, briefing notes, collaborative workspace etc.

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014
URL http://sure-infrastructure.leeds.ac.uk/ui/
Description Undermining Infrastructure: avoiding the scarcity trap 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact General introduction to the UI project, at the launch of the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure.

INcreased involvement in UI project and associated interdisciplinary work across Leeds campus and beyond
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
URL http://sure-infrastructure.leeds.ac.uk/ui/