Interview: The resource situation of metals
Topic of the month March 2011
Metals play an important role in the product range of the trade fairs wire and Tube. Copper is essential for the production of cables and wires, silver is necessary to produce conductive coatings and adhesives and gold provides excellent contact properties and high corrosion resistance. These precious metals are essential to realize innovations within the product ranges of the wire fair. Analogous considerations apply to the Tube fair; only selected alloying elements allow the realization of the required high-quality property profiles of various products, like high corrosion or wear resistance for example. Currently, numerous studies report about significant decreasing resources and increasing commodity prices, particularly in the field of high-tech metals. We have discussed this exciting topic which is of major importance for the trade fairs wire and Tube with Dr. Roland Nolte, Director of the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment, IZT in Berlin.
1. How do you evaluate the current resource situation for the products of the trade fairs wire and Tube?
The current resource situation cannot be characterized generally, because the situation differs for different types of raw materials. Focusing commodities you will find that the situation is not critical in spite of rising raw material prices. It is expected that the situation will remain stable in the future – maybe with a few exceptions. In the sector of high-tech metals, which are often used as alloying elements, the situation is markedly different. Technological breakthroughs and the concentration of extraction in politically unstable countries are possible reasons for supply bottlenecks in the future.
2. Please explain to us the role of rare earths metals in this context? Is the impact of rare earths metals in the field of construction materials comparable to functional materials?
Shortages are already foreseeable or they even exist for up to 8 rare earth elements including scandium, dysprosium, europium, lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium, terbium, and yttrium. This is mainly because of the very strong concentration of production. Currently 95% of the global production originates from China. The country follows a restrictive export policy for rare earths metals, which was further intensified by the introduction of rigid quotas last year. So, the prices for rare earth metals skyrocketed in the recent past and will continue to grow in the near future. These shortages will influence innovative key technologies like electric mobility (strong permanent magnets), renewable energy (wind turbines), semiconductor technology and fuel cells. Additionally, other technology areas will be affected. Some of the previously mentioned metals play an important role as alloying elements or additives in the production of special wires and cables. One example is the use of yttrium in high-temperature superconductors of the second generation. The commercialization of this material class is expected in the next 5 years.
3. Which alloying elements are increasingly becoming scarce? How will this affect future product generations?
The alloying elements with the clearest sign of relative scarcity - for example, due to technology-driven demands or geopolitical risk factors - include tantalum, the above-mentioned eight rare earth metals as well as niobium and tungsten. In fact, this could have significant implications for future high-tech products and product developments. In particular the use of super alloys, high-strength steels and various titanium alloys will be affected by these restrictions.
4. Please give us some information concerning iron, aluminum and copper. How is the actual raw material situation and how long will the known reserves last?
Concerning these metals no absolute shortages are in sight, despite the rising demand particularly from China. The raw material reserves for bauxite – the base material for the aluminum production – will last for 129 years and iron ore will last for about 83 years, respectively. The situation for copper looks a bit more critical. It is estimated that the reserves will cover the demands only for the next 30 years. However, this number remains stable since many years due to the continuous exploration of new deposits. On the other hand, it is assumed that relative shortages will influence the copper situation – among others, the impact of monopoly suppliers will be a possible reasons for this.
5. What´s about material efficiency?
Material efficiency is slowly but surely established as an important issue in manufacturing. One sign is the growing number of application relevant research projects that deal with issues of material efficiency in manufacturing processes. But I would not go so far to claim that this topic will show positive effects on the macroeconomic level up to now. We are just at the beginning of a development which certainly has great potential in various industries and which should be implemented consequently in the coming years and decades.
6. Recycling is also an important issue. What are new strategies in this field and how are the actual figures of metal recycling?
Overall, metal recycling provides very high efficiency potentials. But the possibilities change from metal to metal, so a general evaluation is difficult. For some mass metals, the recycling rate is already relatively high. For example the recycling rate for titanium reaches 38% globally, aluminum reaches 35% globally, copper reaches 15% globally and 56% in Germany and chromium reaches 15 to 20% in Germany. Concerning high-tech metals, the recycling rates show strong variations. Complex return logistics, general problems of separability from end products and the often used small amounts are the main reasons for this. Here the recycling rates range from 45% for platinum to 13% for rhenium up to only about 1% for rare earths metals. It is assumed that in the future significantly higher recycling rates will be realized. The integration of recycling strategies in the production process, recycling-friendly product designs, intelligent return logistics and the establishment of incentive systems will pioneer this important development.
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