Some science and technology committee sessions are so well attended at the Houses of Parliament that it is standing room only in the viewing galleries. That certainly wasn’t the case for the first session of an inquiry into strategically important metals. A feeble dribble of attendees filed in to watch the goings-on, perhaps reflecting the stubbornly unfashionable nature of anything to do with manufacturing and industry within the Westminster bubble.
That proved to be something of a shame, because the issues being explored were deserving of a much bigger audience. The inquiry is investigating the importance of strategic metals in the UK, amid fears that a shortage of some rare earth elements could hinder the growth of new technology sectors. Metals such as cobalt, platinum, neodymium, tantalum, niobium, indium and lithium are important resources, widely used in modern technological devices. Neodymium, for instance, is a rare earth element that is increasingly used in the production of magnets for computer hard disc drives, electric vehicles and magnetic resonance imaging. Demand for the metal is rocketing, causing concerns over shortages of supply.
And so the first session of the committee received evidence from the great and good including the Geological Society of London, the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. And the mood was decidedly downbeat: emerging economies were fuelling demand for metals at a rate that could not be matched by the mining industry’s ability to get them out of the ground. Energy costs were soaring around the world, making metals more expensive to extract.
Some countries have seen this coming. Japan has kept a close eye on the metals market for many years, and has even taken to stockpiling nickel, chromium, tungsten, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum and vanadium to ensure that sudden price spikes don’t destabilise its economy. The UK is unlikely to follow such an approach, but the witnesses all agreed that other actions could be taken to help alleviate the problem of metals shortages in the future. These included ensuring there were enough geologists and metals experts coming through from universities to help understand global supply issues and for industry to fuse together materials science and product development for ease of disassembly and thus metals’ recovery and reuse. More money also needs to be spent researching substitute materials – for instance, the medical sector is replacing cobalt with more readily available titanium in certain applications.
There was even a suggestion that some mining activity might one day be recommenced on these shores. There were treasures waiting to be found in Cornwall, said one of the witnesses, and so high was the price of metals on international markets that mines shut long ago might prove commercially viable once again. Improved techniques meant that modern mines could be good neighbours in terms of visual impact and noise, but work was needed to challenge negative perceptions of mining before new investments could take place.
It was all interesting stuff, making it a real shame that so few people were in attendance for what proved a good knock-about verbal session. Let’s just hope that the MPs on the science and technology committee were paying attention and that their subsequent report makes some useful recommendations.