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We interview researcher Jessika Luth Richter from Lund University. The topic: the ‘critical’ materials that are found in our electronics – what makes materials ‘critical’, their global supplies, their mining, and how little we recycle them. We also discuss the demand of some of these materials for renewable energy.
First, Jessika walks us through some of the critical materials that are essential for our smartphones to function: some are needed for touch screens (like indium and tin), others for batteries (like cobalt), and many more make up the electronics, from wires to micro capacitors.
Both the European Union and the United States have published lists containing the materials they consider critical: 27 and 35 respectively. So whether a material is labelled as critical will vary depending on each region’s supply chain and demand for materials.
Then, we discuss how critical raw materials can be found in many deposits around the world. However, not all countries have developed the expertise to mine them safely and affordably, and currently most import them from China. While there are reserves in Europe, there isn’t enough drive to ensure mining complies with environmental legislation at European level while still being profitable.
While you might not have heard of critical raw materials before, ‘conflict minerals’ may sound more familiar. However, not all conflict materials are considered critical. Conflict zones imply supply risks, potentially making a material critical, however there can still be other sources, as is the case with gold.
Next, we talk about issues when recycling critical materials. With a few exceptions, like cobalt or tungsten, critical materials have very low recycling rates. These materials are found in various parts of our devices, and also in very small amounts. This makes it hard to separate these materials after they are shredded in recycling facilities. Jessika talks about some innovative technologies that could make this process more efficient. However, she points out that the unpredictable demand of these materials makes it difficult for these technologies to develop.
Despite their unpredictable demand, there are technologies which will rely extensively on critical raw materials, for instance renewable technologies like wind turbines or solar panels.
Lastly, we reflect on how each of us can work towards a more responsible use of critical raw materials. At a minimum, Jessika suggests, we should be thinking more about the products we purchase and embracing repair to make things last for longer. Keeping products in the loop, Jessika adds, we can slow the demand for these materials, while giving more time for recycling technologies to thrive.
Jessika Luth Richter is currently collaborating with Restart to the ‘Refer’ project, a European network of universities working to raise awareness about critical raw materials.