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Critical materials and the path to resilience: Europe’s quest for technological independence

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The sustainability and resilience of modern economies hinge critically on the availability and management of key raw materials, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. These materials are fundamental for green technologies, including solar panels, electric vehicles, and digital devices. However, the global supply chains for these materials are increasingly vulnerable due to geopolitical tensions and the dominance of a few countries in their production. This situation has sparked a pressing need for strategic autonomy, particularly in Europe, to avoid excessive dependency and ensure economic and technological stability.

Historical context and current challenges

David Peck’s research into the material scarcity strategies of World War II-era Britain offers valuable insights for today’s material supply challenges. During the war, the British government effectively managed material shortages through stringent control measures such as licenses, permits and rationing. This approach not only reduced material usage significantly but also encouraged innovative product design to make better use of scarce resources.

Fast forward to 2023, and similar strategic measures are becoming crucial due to multiple global disruptions: the war in Ukraine affecting grain and energy supplies, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting supply chains, and geopolitical tensions involving China impacting the availability of critical materials. The European Commissioner Thierry Breton emphasized the need for a paradigm shift from just-in-time logistics and global specialization to a more resilient and autonomous economic model.

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Critical materials and their importance

Critical materials are defined not by their scarcity alone but by their essential role in the economy and the high risk of supply disruption. For instance, while gold is scarce, it is not considered critical by the European Commission because its supply does not pose a significant risk to economic stability. In contrast, materials like lithium, cobalt, and rare earth metals are crucial for manufacturing technologies vital for the energy transition and digitalization .

The demand for these materials is set to increase dramatically. The European Commission’s projections suggest that the need for rare earth metals will multiply by five by 2030. This burgeoning demand underscores the urgency for Europe to strengthen its strategic autonomy and reduce dependency on external sources for these critical materials.

Strategic autonomy and technological sovereignty

Achieving strategic autonomy involves developing homegrown technologies and securing the supply of critical materials through diverse means, including recycling, remanufacturing, and even domestic mining. Europe’s technological sovereignty is intertwined with its ability to maintain a stable supply of critical materials, essential for industries like AI, batteries and robotics. TU Delft, among other institutions, is actively engaged in research and development to address these challenges through innovative technologies and sustainable practices.

Recycling, remanufacturing and mining

Recycling is a cornerstone of the circular economy, which aims to reduce dependency on raw material imports. However, the growing demand for critical materials cannot be met solely through recycling. Remanufacturing, which involves creating new products from used ones, offers a viable short-term solution by extending the life cycle of materials and buying time to develop more sustainable solutions.

Domestic mining in Europe, though controversial, is also being reconsidered to reduce external dependencies. The European Commission and experts like David Peck advocate for balanced approaches that include recycling, remanufacturing, and sustainable mining practices to secure a stable supply of critical materials.

Innovation and the role of policy

Innovation in material science, product design, and recycling technologies is crucial for reducing dependency on critical materials. Universities and research institutions play a pivotal role in this, not only through technological advancements but also by training a new generation of technical experts.

Policy intervention is essential to drive these changes. Market forces alone are insufficient to address the urgency of securing critical material supplies. Governments must take proactive steps to support sustainable practices, incentivize innovation, and enforce regulations that promote the efficient use of materials. The concept of “material passports,” which tracks the use and lifecycle of critical materials, is an emerging tool that could significantly enhance material reuse and recycling efforts.

Conclusion

In an era marked by increasing geopolitical tensions and supply chain vulnerabilities, the strategic management of critical materials is imperative for sustaining economic and technological growth. By learning from historical precedents, investing in innovation, and implementing robust policies, Europe can build a resilient and autonomous economy capable of navigating the complexities of global material supply chains.

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