Sustainability evaluation of essential critical raw materials: cobalt, niobium, tungsten and rare earth elements
Journal article, 2018
The criticality of raw materials has become an important issue in recent years. As the supply of certain raw materials is essential for technologically-advanced economies, the European Commission and other international counterparts have started several initiatives to secure reliable and unhindered access to raw materials. Such efforts include the EU Raw Materials Initiative, European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials, US Critical Materials Institute, and others. In this paper, the authors present a multi-faceted and multi-national review of the essentials for the critical raw materials (CRMs) Co, Nb, W, and rare earth elements (REEs). The selected CRMs are of specific interest as they are considered relevant for emerging technologies and will thus continue to be of increasing major economic importance. This paper presents a 'sustainability evaluation' for each element, including essential data about markets, applications and recycling, and possibilities for substitution have been summarized and analysed. All the presented elements are vital for the advanced materials and processes upon which modern societies rely. These elements exhibit superior importance in 'green' applications and products subject to severe conditions. The annual production quantities are quite low compared to common industrial metals. Of the considered CRMs, only Co and REE gross production exceed 100 000 t. At the same time, the prices are quite high, with W and Nb being in the range of 60 USD kg(-1) and some rare earth compounds costing almost 4000 USD kg(-1). Despite valiant effort, in practice some of the considered elements are de facto irreplaceable for many specialized applications, at today's technological level. Often, substitution causes a significant loss of quality and performance. Furthermore, possible candidates for substitution may be critical themselves or available in considerably low quantities. It can be concluded that one preferred approach for the investigated elements could be the use of secondary resources derived from recycling. W exhibits the highest recycling rate (37%), whereas Co (16%), Nb (11%) and rare earths (similar to 0%) lag behind. In order to promote recycling of these essential elements, financial incentives as well as an improvement of recycling technologies would be required.
rare earth elements
critical raw materials