INSIGHT: EU 'critical' raw material list highlights trade tensions

21 June 2010 18:06  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--Fluorspar and the rare earths are among 14 “critical” raw materials indentified by the European Commission, the availability of which are vitally important to existing and developing industries.

Essential to the chemical industry, it is encouraging to see both the mineral and the rare earth elements, which include such substances as neodymium, lanthanum and dysprosium, on the Commission's list.

Created by an expert panel, the list, which was published on 17 June, will be the basis on which EU policy is made.

Disquiet has grown about the way in which China and other countries have sought to restrict access to certain key substances.

The EU has challenged a 15% duty placed by China on fluorspar exports, for instance, and sought (with the US and Mexico) a dispute settlement on this and restrictions on other materials at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva.

Fluorspar is the source of fluorine for the chemical industry, and the EU can only satisfy 25% of its needs.

China accounted for 97% of global rare earths production in 2009m but proposals to ban the export of some of the elements dysprosium, terbium, thulium, lutetium and yttrium after 2015 have caused disquiet.

New mines are being dug for rare earths in countries like Australia, Canada and the US, but there are claims that low prices are discouraging investment. Rare earths extraction also is a complex business.

The raw materials identified by the European Commission's working group, from a total of 41, are: antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, niobium, the platinum group metals, the rare earth elements, tantalum and tungsten.

When you push the boundaries of technology, you often use one or another of these not-always-so-readily-available substances.

The strong magnets used in hybrid automobiles, for example, can use up to 1kg of the rare earth neodymium. Rare earth elements are used in many important electronic devices.

China is seen as the key player in many of the materials, but primary sources of others are in politically sensitive areas; the Democratic Republic of Congo is one.

“It is our aim to make sure that European industry will be able to continue to play a leading role in new technologies and innovation and we have to ensure we have the necessary elements to do so,” European Commission Vice President and Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani said when the list was released.

China is the primary producer of antimony, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, rare earths and tungsten, and the Democratic Republic of Congo the main source of cobalt and tungsten. Niobium and tantalum come from Brazil, and platinum group metals largely from Russia.

“The production concentration, in many cases, is compounded by low substitution and recycling rates,” the Commission added in a statement.

The European Commission group working on the list took a 10-year time horizon and stressed that many of the parameters it used are not necessarily stable.

In other words, the list can change with time as new products are introduced or as the supply of other important raw materials become more vulnerable.

Rare earth elements aren’t necessarily rare but the demand for of some of them is growing  and from increasingly important sectors of the economy.

The same can be said for a number of other elements, the supply/demand balances for which could turn critical.

The issue looms large for the EU, which established its “Raw Materials Initiative” in 2008 and will reveal a range of strategies this autumn aimed at helping secure raw material supply.

China’s apparent grip on some of these important elements has been likened to Saudi Arabia’s grip on oil.

The EU might be expected to work to maintain trade flows and sources of supply, firstly through various trade mechanisms, sources say, particularly that of China’s membership of the WTO.

It is likely to encourage more recycling and see whether it can spur the permitting of more extraction.

More industries were drawn into this debate last year as the implications of raw material supply, particularly to newly developing industries and new technologies, became more widely apparent. Their very future is at stake as raw materials demand shifts and some substances become key.

“We need fair play on external markets,” said Tajani, “a good framework to foster sustainable raw materials supply from EU sources as well as improved resource efficiency and more use of recycling.”

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By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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