Adrian Finch’s Research Group Submit Evidence to two Westminster Evidence Calls

In the last few weeks, the UK parliament at Westminster has requested evidence on two resource-related projects. Our research group submitted to both calls.

Exploration for critical metals, Greenland

The first was the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s inquiry on Batteries for electric vehicle manufacturing. I presented comments as a geologist who works to obtain UK-based critical resources. I particularly drew attention to the fact that the UK does not produce any of the metals used in battery manufacture and that it needed a) to promote potential UK sources for Li, and/or b) to create strategic partnerships with countries that might produce such resources.

The second was the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry on Critical minerals. This seeks to understand the vulnerability of the UK to strategic control of the supply of critical metals. It also seeks to develop improved environmental, social and governance performance in critical mineral mining and processing through the UK’s diplomatic influence.

The texts of our evidence are given below.

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s inquiry on Batteries for electric vehicle manufacturing

My reply addresses the question: Does the UK have a sufficient supply of critical materials to support vehicle battery production?

  • Battery technologies require access to Lithium (Li), Manganese (Mn), Nickel (Ni) and Cobalt (Co) and of these four metals, the most critical are Li and Co.
  • The UK and Europe currently produce almost none of their critical metal needs even though they are one of the world’s greatest consumers. There is an ethical dimension to the West committing to zero-carbon futures – that accelerate demand for resources – but at the same time not actually producing those resources, which effectively outsources the carbon footprint and environmental damage of mining to other parts of the world.
  • Of the four metals that make rechargeable batteries (Li, Mn, Ni, Co), the UK has the potential of the British Lithium project on Cornwall, but little real prospect of sourcing the other metals (Co, Ni, Mn) involved in battery manufacture in the short to medium term. Note that there is a chance that lithium mineralisation has gone unnoticed because the mineral petalite (a Li ore) looks almost identical to feldspar, the most common mineral in the Earth’s Crust.
  • In contrast to the UK, Continental Europe has several potential sources of lithium, manganese, nickel and cobalt. Hence the UK’s access to these resources is significantly influenced by its relationship with the EU, our nearest source of these metal resources. There are also projects in the high Arctic in places such as Greenland that might in due course meet some of the UK’s demand.
  • Establishing a mine in the UK and Europe is perceived as difficult because of power of local concerns about the environmental impact of mining. Europeans need to beware of a Not-In-My-Back-Yard mentality, but rather sponsor the recognition that a commitment to zero-carbon futures means more mining. By ensuring that mining takes place in Europe, we can minimise the carbon and environmental impact of mining (ensuring it meets European safety and environmental standards), instead of outsourcing it to parts of the world over which we have no control.
  • Mining for metals used in green technology is essential to replace our dependence on oil and gas. We are leaving behind the age of carbon and entering the age of metals. The green zero-carbon future is entirely dependent on responsible mining for new metals such as those in batteries. The UK needs to be at the heart of that change, driving it, not just dependent on other countries for the success or otherwise of its zero-carbon strategies.
  • The UK has some of the world’s best academic expertise on the geology of critical metals, how to find them and how to exploit them, which includes my research group. I do not believe it makes full use of that expertise.
  • The use of lithium in batteries may in due course be replaced by other, less critical materials such as sodium or hydrogen.

Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry on Critical minerals

  • Which critical minerals are the most important to the UK’s national priorities

The UK currently meets almost none of its critical metal needs even though it is one of the world’s greatest consumers. There are many assessments in the literature of critical materials on the UK and EU perspectives. The metals in question nearly always include rare earths (including neodymium, terbium, dysprosium and others) for EVs and wind turbines; niobium used in steels and MRI scanners; tantalum used in mobile phones and several other metals (lithium, cobalt, nickel) used in rechargeable batteries. The UK might produce from reserves and resources in tin, tungsten and lithium but few projects promise other critical metals within the UK on decadal timescales.

Where are the vulnerabilities in these supply chains? What are the consequences of disruption to these supply chains?

When supply of metals is held by a few jurisdictions, it is vulnerable to resource nationalism, i.e. restricting access to metals for local gain. There is public concern about energy from the Ukraine war, but export tariffs (e.g. China) make the production of technologies more expensive outside the region that supplies the resources. Merely the suggestion that restrictions might occur can cause companies to relocate to an area where access to resources are assured. This is a much more subtle issue of direct relevance to the UK since we hope to become world leaders in green technologies. Without assured access to resources, companies will not locate in the UK.

  • What opportunities are there for diversification of the UK’s critical minerals supply chains? How is the FCDO supporting the Government’s efforts to diversify supply of critical minerals?

Continental Europe has several potential sources of lithium, cobalt, rare earths and others. There are significant opportunities for rare earths, niobium and tantalum in Greenland. Hence the UK’s access to these resources is significantly influenced by its relationship with its neighbours. Many companies – often with British CEOs – are working in the rest of the world, e.g. Pensana in Angola and Mkango in Malawi. Africa represents an important frontier with several world-class metal projects.

However, the metal simply being in the ground does not guarantee a mine – the metal must be in a mineral for which a viable extraction process can be constructed. Many rare earth rich rocks have the metals in mineral types that cannot be processed economically, or in which the rare earth is housed alongside unwanted elements such as thorium and uranium, which could create radioactive and/or poisonous tailings. Some of the world’s rare earth deposits have the rare earth in a mineral type for which there is no proven extraction process – such a process would need to be developed before the mine could go into production.

  • What can the UK learn from steps taken by other countries to reduce the vulnerability of their critical mineral supply chains?

Although the UK cannot mine its own resource needs, it can become a world leader in the processing of ore. For example, Pensana intend to create a rare earth processing plant on Teeside; the right regulatory environment might encourage processing of other resources.

The EU Critical Raw Materials Act is conceived to address many issues of critical supply chains. Although the UK is not part of the EU, I can envisage it becoming partner to such a programme. If Europe were to develop multilateral agreements, then the whole region could take a mutually supportive view to its natural resources.

Establishing a mine in the UK is perceived as difficult because of power of local concerns about the environmental impact of mining (cf. fracking). If the UK could overcome the NIMBY mentality, as many countries outside Europe have done, it would immediately become a more attractive jurisdiction. Public opinion would need to recognise that mining is an essential consequence of a zero-carbon future.

  • How can the FCDO support the responsible sourcing of the UK’s critical minerals? How can the UK work with global partners to improve environmental, social and governance performance (ESG) across the sector? What are the potential complications/implications of insisting on traceability in supply chains?

Simple market forces can promote conflict and create politically unpalatable sources for critical metals (e.g. Congo). Therefore many resources (e.g. diamonds) have certification schemes that track the product from mine to shop, but such schemes are vulnerable to counterfeiting. By processing ore in the UK, we control more closely these schemes and improve their veracity.

My research group at St Andrews University has worked on developing new ways to trace forensically rare earths from rock source to an electronic product (i.e. to take a product and by analysing it, work out where it the world the rare earth was sourced). Our proof-of-concept data show that this can be done in principle, but we lack research funding to allow the basic science to be fully developed. Our methods might be also used to explore provenance in resources, such as tantalum and cobalt. Regulated forensic analysis could provide checks and balance to support certification.

  • What are the opportunities and challenges of deep seabed mining for critical minerals? What should the UK’s role be in regulatory development around this?

There may be offshore resources in UK waters (e.g. manganese nodules), but my personal view is that the legal quagmires and environmental damage caused by deep-sea mining make it an unlikely solution to the UK’s critical metal requirements in decadal timescales.

  • Where should the UK’s focus be in developing bilateral relationships for improving our supply chain accessibility and traceability? How can the UK Government help mitigate any adverse impact of “debt-trap diplomacy” and increasing divides between the global South and global North?

There is a fear that sourcing critical metals from poorer countries creates exploitation that allows the UK effectively to outsource the environmental and social impact of its lifestyle. Yet, partnerships with poorer countries with natural resources allows wealth to dissipate more equitably across the globe. This requires companies to take a holistic view of mining, and the UK government to promote financial models that provide infrastructure without debt, and which manage the social impacts of mining, as well as physical and financial ones. An important component would be that environmental and social standards at the mine are equivalent to those in the UK. Significant rare earth projects exist in, for example, Angola, Malawi and Namibia, where exploration products are advanced. The UK might also make closer ties with Greenland and Canada, which also have substantial mineral wealth and in which environmental controls would be of western standards.

  • What are the risks to international security of having mid-stream processing concentrated in a handful of countries? How can the UK guard against hostile states leveraging access to critical minerals for political gain?

China controls the lion’s share not only of rare earth mining, but also on the processing of ore. For example, rare earth ore mined in California by MP Minerals is shipped to China for processing, thereby becoming part of China’s monopoly. Processing ore in the UK would allow us to compensate to some degree for the fact that we do not have our own rare earth resources. It would allow us tighter control on the veracity of source certification schemes.

Some rare earth ores are mildly to strongly radioactive and therefore their shipment might be hazardous. Any site that processes the ore might find itself accumulating, and thereby needing to stockpile, radioactive elements such thorium and uranium.

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