We are in the age of materials and energy efficiency. The world population is growing and is quickly urbanizing. Some metals have become critical as they have been recognized of economic importance, facing a supply risk and having a lack of substitutes.
Over the last two decades, these metals have gradually and almost insidiously invaded our lives; both at the private and professional level, but also in relation to their essential roles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At the dawn of industry 4, we are in the age of efficient materials, those which improve the requirements of a modern world of miniaturization, speed, mobility and sustainable energy.
The automobile, the telephone, internet and energy production have quickly evolved thanks to the specific use of these metals. Miniaturization in high speed computing was a major technological advance and it has changed our life, making us interconnected over the web and able to work with Terabytes of data from anywhere through a ‘cloud’. Our cars have drastically lost weight and are full of electronics and servo motors. Autonomous cars will become safer than with us as a driver! Our bridges and buildings have also replaced cast iron and traditional steel components with lightweight materials such as high-strength steel. Going forward, the smart automatization through robotics will also significantly impact the supply chain of critical metals.
Our economies are changing, driven by sustainability policies, development of emerging countries, technological advances in the fields of energy, transport, high tech and materials science.
The COP 21 in Paris might be seen as a catalyst for the demand of critical metals. The Conference of Parties (COP) has given the baselines to keep the schedule to limit the global warming. 'Made in China 2025' policy has listed ten priority sectors which need rare earths. Both initiatives will favor the increasing share of renewable energy in all developed and emerging countries, and consequently will boost the demand for REE (neodymium, praseodymium, terbium, dysprosium, and lanthanum oxides) and other specialty metals such as Lithium, Cobalt, Graphite, Vanadium, Manganese, Titanium, Niobium.
Fig 1 : Supply chains in 4 key sectors have drastically evolved supported by the use of these ‘vitamins of our modern industry’, which are these critical metals. (CRM: Critical Raw Material).
As the world moves towards a cleaner, greener future, demand for rare-earths based materials will continue to increase. Hybrid cars, wind turbines, and ultra-efficient lighting and appliances can’t function without REEs; next-generation technologies such as electric vehicles and magnetic cooling technology could also require large quantities of rare earths. (Report: Erecon V5 2015)
In this context and in view of the still very limited progress in substitution and recycling means that critical metals still play an indispensable role in the design of these new materials. Moreover, they can provide a decisive competitive advantage for end user items.