Critical elements

Raw materials are fundamental to economic development. But almost all of them have a problem: they are finite substances, and using them indiscriminately can lead to an unsustainable future. It is therefore important to develop new recycling and utilisation technologies, as well as to research substitutes based on more abundant materials that allow the same level of development and functionalities. In addition, many of these materials are closely related to clean energy generation; plans to avoid stock-outs have become a priority.

The substitution of raw materials that are scarce or difficult to access for geostrategic reasons, but essential for the production of the components of the digital and electrified economy, by other abundant elements, represents one of today's great scientific-technological challenges. It is one of the most phenomenal innovation trends as sustainability is directly involved.

In fact, in 40 environmental technologies, 38 scarce materials could play a key role in a green economy scenario up to 2050. The most relevant substitution options are in most cases at early stages of development, and will not become viable until breakthroughs and justified use cases occur.

Hence, much of the research effort is focused on the recycling of components containing the raw materials of most interest. Less than 1% of scarce raw materials are returned to the productive sector and although waste electrical and electronic equipment is increasing at a rate of 2% per year in Europe, less than 40% of it is recycled.

Decarbonisation and SDGs

We need to redesign our production processes. First, because our planet's raw materials and resources are finite and therefore we need new strategies to reuse and recycle scarce materials such as precious metals and rare earths. This will enable the move towards a circular and greener economy. In addition, the search for new raw materials will reduce the impact of extraction and mining on the environment. Supporting research and development of alternatives will, at the same time, facilitate the development of new sustainable technologies for the generation and storage of energy, one of our most important resources. Overall, reducing our dependence on critical materials will enable rapid progress towards decarbonisation and sustainable development goals.