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Safety, sustainability and security for Europe’s mineral processing industry

Dependence on mineral resources is rooted in their use in a plethora of devices and everyday applications: mobile phones, flat screen televisions, automobiles, solar panels, space guidance systems, jet engines and pacemakers. Even a smartphone contains more than 50 metals, including rare earth elements, that are in huge demand with limited supply. This Results Pack showcases seven EU-funded projects spearheading research to improve processing of these raw materials with emphasis on sustainability.

Climate Change and Environment
Industrial Technologies

To achieve the objectives of the European Green Deal, there is a need for the supply and use of raw materials to meet the needs of a growing population that stays within the sustainable limits of our planet's natural resources and ecosystems. Raw materials, in particular critical raw materials (CRMs), are crucial to Europe’s economy. A reliable, uninterrupted supply of CRMs is necessary to enable a strong industrial base to produce the goods and technologies we have come to rely on in daily life. To address this challenge, the European Commission has created a list of CRMs for the EU. This list is subject to review and update every three years to reflect the dynamic and expanding economy. Fourteen CRMs were identified on the first iteration of the list in 2011; by 2020 that number had grown to 30. In parallel, as part of its Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, the European Commission launched in 2020 the European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA), an industrial alliance dedicated to securing a sustainable supply of raw materials in Europe. Vital to key EU industrial ecosystems such as automotive, renewable energy, defence and aerospace, the alliance will expand to incorporate other CRM issues, supporting the circular economy and addressing the EU Green Deal.

Reducing waste and closing supply chain gaps

The seven projects in this pack address many challenges: CRMs are rare and can be difficult to extract, exposure to them is often hazardous and toxic to the environment, and their supply chains are vulnerable to competition from outside Europe. Covering a wide range of the rare earth elements necessary for high-tech industry, the research also demonstrates that these raw materials and side streams that often end up as waste can be produced or reused sustainably through innovation. Tapping the full potential of primary and secondary raw materials, these research projects boost the innovation capacity of the EU raw materials sector along the entire value chain. Contributing to the circular economy in the construction arena, NEMO has demonstrated the potential use of mine tailings in concrete products as well as recovering additional metals from sulfidic residues. Aluminium production yields a vast amount of bauxite residue and the RemovAL project converts this into new products, including substrate for road construction and building aggregates. Many rare earth elements are reluctant to be separated from their rock deposits so optimisation of the extraction model is key. The SecREEts project extracts rare earth elements from phosphate rocks used in fertiliser production. Exotic-sounding metals like praseodymium are extracted that are used in permanent magnets for space exploration and healthcare. Making use of steel waste streams, CHROMIC removes chromium for use in the high-tech sector. New methods devised by the FineFuture project separate mineral particles as small as 20 µm so that they are not discarded. PLATIRUS may enable the recovery of enough valuable platinum from mining and electronic waste to fill the supply gap up to 30 %, making Europe more competitive. One of the costliest elements on the market is scandium and its supply has been limited to imports from Asia and Russia. The SCALE project aims to establish a closed supply chain for this valuable metal used in high-intensity lighting and 3D printing applications.

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