Since 2011, the European Commission assesses a 3-year list of Critical Raw Materials (CRMs) for the EU economy within its Raw Materials Initiative. To date, 14 CRMs were identified in 2011, 20 in 2014 and 27 in 2017. These materials are mainly used in energy transition and digital technologies.
All critical raw materials are graphically summarised on periodic table of elements published in review paper "The Critical Raw Materials in Cutting Tools for Machining Applications: A Review"
They are also shown in the table below.
|.||Coking coal||Coking coal|
|Platinum group metals||Platinum group metals||Platinum group metals|
|.||Phosphate rock||Phosphate rock|
|Rare earth||Light rare earth||Light rare earth|
|Heavy rare earth||Heavy rare earth|
Critical materials have been defined as "raw materials for which there are no viable substitutes with current technologies, which most consumer countries are dependent on importing, and whose supply is dominated by one or a few producers".
Several factors may combine to make a raw material (mineral or not) a critical resource. These may include the following:
There are many issues about these resources and they concern a large number of people and human activities. It is possible to distinguish:
According to the United Nations (2011, and ien 2013), as the demand for rare metals will quickly exceed the consumed tonnage in 2013, it is urgent and priority should be placed on recycling rare metals with a worldwide production lower than 100 000 t/year, in order to conserve natural resources and energy. However, this measure will not be enough. Planned obsolescence of products which contain these metals should be limited, and all elements inside computers, mobile phones or other electronic objects found in electronic waste should be recycled. This involves looking for eco-designed alternatives, and changes in consumer behavior in favor of selective sorting aimed at an almost total recycling of these metals.
In the same time, the demand for these materials "has to be optimized or reduced", insist Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Ashok Khosla, co-presidents of the International Resource Panel created in 2007 by the United States, and hosted by the UNEP) to analyse the impact of resource use on the environment in 2013.
Europe alone produced about 12 million tons of metallic wastes in 2012, and this amount tended to grow more than 4% a year (faster than municipal waste). However, fewer than 20 metals, of the 60 studied by experts of the UNEP, were recycled to more than 50% in the world. 34 compounds were recycled at lower than 1% of the total discarded as trash.
According to the UNEP, even without new technologies, that rate could be greatly increased. The energy efficiency of the production and recycling methods has also to be developed.
Information about the location of deposits of rare metals is scarce. The US DOE created the Critical Materials Institute in 2013, intended to focus on finding and commercializing ways to reduce reliance on the critical materials essential for American competitiveness in the clean energy technologies.
A counter-perspective is represented by Professor Indra Overland, who has heavily criticised analyses that posit critical materials for renewable energy as a bottleneck for transition to renewable energy and/or as a source of geopolitical tension. Such analyses ignore the fact that unlike fossil fuels, most critical minerals can be recycled and technological innovation will enable better exploration, extraction, and processing. Especially the importance of rare earth elements for renewable energy applications has been exaggerated, according to Overland. Neodymium magnets are only needed for a rare type of wind turbine that uses permanent magnets. Even for offshore wind developments it is not clear whether permanent magnets will be much needed.