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Networking and innovation for the substitution of critical raw materials

Last week, the FP7-funded CRM_INNONET project hosted a meeting of projects focused on the substitution of critical raw materials in Brussels.

Raw materials are everywhere and in many of the objects that get us through a typical day in the 21st century. For example, your smartphone comprises a well-honed cocktail of up to 50 different metals, the combination of which help to give it its light weight and small size. Key economic sectors in Europe – such as automotive, aerospace and renewable energy – are highly dependent on raw materials. For example, healthcare equipment and wind turbines use equipment containing high performance magnets made from rare earth elements. It’s clear that raw materials are essential for the EU economy, growth and jobs however they are not necessarily abundant within our territory, and their availability is increasingly under pressure. Our vulnerability in this area was underlined particularly in the past few years when China controversially introduced export restrictions on ‘rare earths’, as well as tungsten and molybdenum which are essential components for a wide range of European industries. In May 2014, the EU published a list of the 20 raw materials which it considers the most critical to Europe. One way of tackling the shortage of critical raw materials is to explore more abundant and perhaps cheaper substitutes. Over the past two years, the CRM_INNONET (Critical Raw Materials Innovation Network) project has been leading the charge in this area which aims to drive innovation and influence policy in the field of substitution of critical raw materials. One of the main tasks of the project is to create an integrated community for critical raw materials substitutions. To this end, last week the network gathered together a range of critical raw materials substitution projects to share their experiences and network at the Third Innovation Network Workshop on substitution of Critical Raw Materials in Brussels. The CRM_INNONET project focuses exclusively on substitution of critical raw materials (specifically the 14 on the European Commission’s list when the project began), but the team is mindful that this is just one strategy to deal with raw material scarcity. Speaking at the workshop, CRM_INNONET project coordinator Dr. Claire Claessen from the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) underlined this point: ‘In this project, we are only looking at substitution – substance to substance substation, or substitution of a process for a different process or a new technology like quantum dots. However, substitution is just one strategy – we always consider it in the context of other approaches, such as recycling and increased extraction.’ Dr. Claessen outlined the progress that the project has made so far, as well as its aims for the final months before the project reaches completion in April of this year: ‘The project has conducted a ‘mapping’ of critical raw material technologies and substitution initiatives and then a prioritisation process to see where Europe should focus its attention in terms of current market share, future market developments, jobs, strategic relevance, etc. We developed five themes – electric motors and drives; batteries and accumulators; high-value alloys; photonics and high-end optics and PCB and electronic components – to focus on and are laying out a road map for each of these, looking at where drivers and opportunities meet.’ This road mapping process has involved interviews and workshops with external experts to capture options and timelines for substituting critical raw materials up to the year 2030. The CRM_INNONET team has now opened the results for three of the themes up for public consultation. The remaining two will be open for consultation shortly. ‘The aim,’ Dr. Claessen notes, ‘is to develop policy recommendations which also consider strategies from Member States and other countries and explore questions like: What are the success criteria for substitution? What’s our vision and what are the requirements?’ She noted that an important element in the success of the project has been networking. Through the three networking events and various workshops organized by CRM_INNONET, the team has succeeded in ‘bringing people together and creating outcomes that you don’t expect to happen.’ The final project conference is likely to take place in May or June 2015. The public consultation for electric motors and drives, batteries and accumulators and high-value alloys is open until midnight on 27 February 2015. For more information, please visit: CRM_INNONET http://www.criticalrawmaterials.eu/

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