Study: Future shortages of critical metals may slow down electrification in EU

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The steady increase in the demand for critical metals, such as dysprosium, neodymium, manganese and niobium, used to advance electrification and digitalization, and the time it takes to scale up their production may result in their shortages in future, even if recycling increases, according to a survey led by Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, on behalf of the European Commission.

"It is important to increase recycling. At the same time, it is clear that an increase in recycling alone cannot meet requirements in the foreseeable future, just because the need for critical metals in new cars is increasing so much. Therefore, there needs to be a greater focus on how we can substitute other materials for these metals. But in the short term it will be necessary to increase extraction in mines if electrification is not to be held back," said Maria Ljunggren, associate professor/sustainable materials management at Chalmers University of Technology.

The survey showed that the proportion of critical metals has increased significantly in vehicles, a development that the researchers believe will continue. Several of the rare earth elements are among the metals that have increased the most, Chalmers University said.

"Neodymium and dysprosium usage has increased by around 400% and 1,700% respectively in new cars over the period, and this is even before electrification had taken off. Gold and silver, which are not listed as critical metals but have great economic value, have increased by around 80%," said Ljunggren.

These critical metals are of "great" economic importance to the EU, as a growing number of electric cars are traveling on the roads of Europe and the increasing dependence on them is "problematic" for several reasons, according to Chalmers University.

"The EU is heavily dependent on imports of these metals because extraction is concentrated in a few countries such as China, South Africa and Brazil. The lack of availability is both an economic and an environmental problem for the EU, and risks delaying the transition to electric cars and environmentally sustainable technologies. In addition, since many of these metals are scarce, we also risk making access to them difficult for future generations if we are unable to use what is already in circulation," said Ljunggren.

The European Commission’s Critical Raw Materials Act has "emphasized" the need to enhance cooperation with reliable external trading partners and for member states to improve the recycling of both critical and strategic raw materials, Ljunggren said. It has also "stressed" the importance of European countries exploring their own geological resources, she said.

Ljunggren added that there is hope the recently identified deposit of rare metals in Sweden can help EU become "less dependent on imports in the long run."

Sweden’s state-owned mining company LKAB (Luleå) identified mineral resources of rare earth metals exceeding 1 million metric tons (MMt) of rare earth oxides at the Per Geijer deposit near the company’s mining operations in the Kiruna area of northern Sweden, according to a statement by the company in January.

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