In the world of robotics and informatics, as well as in the world of the energy transition, the material factor is often ignored. We have imagined android armies, hypercomplex machinery, infinite solar fields, and ubiquitous digital systems, drawing an increasingly hypertechnological future. Yet the availability of raw materials is not unlimited – especially at low economic and environmental costs – as is energy, which in turn requires abundant quantities of metals.

The list to keep an eye on is that of Critical Raw Materials (or CRM), which includes minerals such as tantalum, bauxite, cobalt, bismuth, phosphorus, magnesium and rare earths. However, without excluding more common materials such as copper, which is also experiencing an increase in demand. All are critical to the ecological and digital transition, the material key to a future of shared prosperity.

The race for Critical Raw Materials for the energy transition

A new extractivist race is in sight. According to the World Bank, the supply of critical materials will increase by 500 percent by 2050. Growth that is bound to create rapid price hikes and major uncertainties in supply chains. A vulnerability for Europe, which is heavily dependent on imports. "Today, China controls the entire global critical raw materials transformation industry by processing nearly 90 percent of rare earths and 60 percent of lithium," said Ursula von der Leyen speaking about the Critical Raw Materials Act, Europe's first legislative package to secure the supply of these critical materials that will come into force in 2023. In Italy alone, CRMs are used in industrial production to generate 564 billion euros of economic value (equivalent to about a third of Italy's GDP), 50 of which are derived from rare earths.

What is needed is a technological and economic paradigm shift: to reduce over-technologization (low-tech vs. high-tech), to favor natural services over technological ones, to widely apply the circular economy starting with the recycling of waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), as Antonella Totaro well recounts in her insight. But also speculating on new frontiers of extracting raw materials in a sustainable way: from the hypothetical world of space mining, to (potentially very high-impact) deep sea mining, to experimental innovations such as agromining and urban mining, i.e., the recovery of CRM from the tons of objects in our homes, landfills, and from the homes themselves. Euromines, in an interview with Giorgio Kaldor, recalls that also conventional mining is part of the game and must be done with the best environmental and safety standards. When control over these precious minerals is reduced, unsustainable mining practices and illicit trafficking ensue, as Tosca Ballerini tells us about the WEEE trade.

A circular approach to break a vicious cycle

This somber issue aims to open pandora's box of CRMs. The more we proceeded with the articles the more we realized the breadth and complexity of the issue, the growing contradictions, and how much work is really needed to put the issue of critical raw materials at the center of the political agenda.

This is a key issue in addressing the climate crisis: if CRM deposits come from less accessible strands, they will require more and more energy: just think of mines in unexplored and remote areas. This would unavoidably be renewable energy (if we want to tackle the climate crisis), which, however, requires more and more metal for blades, panels, and electric vehicles. Thus, triggering a vicious cycle: less accessible metals requiring more energy, and less accessible energy requiring more and more metals. Only a circular approach will help us in this challenge.

Image: Emilie (Unsplash)

Download and read the Renewable Matter issue #43 on Critical Raw Materials.