UKRI Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centre for Technology Metals (TechMet)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Camborne School of Mines

Abstract

The Circular Economy (CE) is a revolutionary alternative to a traditional linear, make-use-dispose economy. It is based on the central principle of maintaining continuous flows of resources at their highest value for the longest period and then recovering, cascading and regenerating products and materials at the end of each life cycle. Metals are ideal flows for a circular economy. With careful stewardship and good technology, metals mined from the Earth can be reused indefinitely.

Technology metals (techmetals) are an essential, distinct, subset of specialist metals. Although they are used in much smaller quantities than industrial metals such as iron and aluminium, each techmetal has its own specific and special properties that give it essential functions in devices ranging from smart phones, batteries, wind turbines and solar cells to electric vehicles. Techmetals are thus essential enablers of a future circular, low carbon economy and demand for many is increasing rapidly. E.g., to meet the UK's 2050 ambition for offshore wind turbines will require 10 years' worth of global neodymium production. To replace all UK-based vehicles with electric vehicles would require 200% of cobalt and 75% of lithium currently produced globally each year. The UK is 100% reliant on imports of techmetals including from countries that represent geopolitical risks. Some techmetals are therefore called Critical Raw Materials (high economic importance and high risk of supply disruption). Only four of the 27 raw materials considered critical by the EU have an end-of-life recycling input rate higher than 10%.

Our UKRI TechMet CE Centre brings together for the first time world-leading researchers to maximise opportunities around the provision of techmetals from primary and secondary sources, and lead materials stewardship, creating a National Techmetals Circular Economy Roadmap to accelerate us towards a circular economy. This will help the UK meet its Industrial Strategy Clean Growth agenda and its ambitious UK 2050 climate change targets with secure and environmentally-acceptable supplies of techmetals.

There are many challenges to a future techmetal circular economy. With growing demand, new mining is needed and we must keep the environmental footprint of this primary production as low as possible. Materials stewardship of techmetals is difficult because their fate is often difficult to track. Most arrive in the UK 'hidden' in complex products from which they are difficult to recover. Collection is inefficient, consumers may not feel incentivised to recycle, and policy and legislative initiatives such as Extended Producer Responsibility focus on large volume metals rather than small quantity techmetals. There is a lack of end-to-end visibility and connection between different parts of techmetal value chains.

The TechMet consortium brings together the Universities of Exeter, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester and the British Geological Survey who are already working on how to improve the raw materials cycle, manufacture goods to be re-used and recycled, recycle complex goods such as batteries and use and re-use equipment for as long as possible before it needs recycling. One of our first tasks is to track the current flows of techmetals through the UK economy, which although fundamental, is poorly known. The Centre will conduct new interdisciplinary research on interventions to improve each stage in the cycle and join up the value chain - raw materials can be newly mined and recycled, and manufacturing technology can be linked directly to re-use and recycling. The environmental footprint of our techmetals will be evaluated. Business, regulatory and social experts will recommend how the UK can best put all these stages together to make a new techmetals circular economy and produce a strategy for its implementation.

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