At a moment, a lot is being written about strategic metals. But what does the term actually mean? Strategic metals is a collective term for technology metals and rare earths. They are referred to as strategic because, for good reasons, these raw materials are playing an increasingly important role in the implementation of political and social developments.
Strategic significance due to critical supply situation
Most strategic metals, in particular those which are considered material assets, are required urgently and to an increasing degree by industry. They are important for the energy turnaround, but also essential if the growing demand for high-tech products such as optic fiber cables, touch screens and LED lighting is to be met. In this, strategic metals display a vital characteristic of critical raw materials. The UN International Resource Panel glossary provides a basic definition for a critical raw material: “A critical metal is a metal of great economic importance, the availability of which is endangered (geographic and/or geopolitical tension) and for which there is no actual commercial substitute.”
The number of strategic metals on the EU Critical Raw Materials List for 2020 is correspondingly high. Four technology metals (gallium, germanium, hafnium, indium) and all rare earth elements are listed there. Since 2011, the entire list has grown from 14 to 30 metals.
Limited availability in Europe
There are a number of reasons behind the fact that Europe’s supply of strategic metals is not secure: They are generally less prevalent in the Earth’s crust than other elements. Their production is expensive and complicated as the raw materials do not occur on their own in their natural state but rather in a compound with minerals or ore. They require an elaborate separation process. Furthermore – and this is the main reason – Europe is at a geographic disadvantage in terms of the distribution of the raw material. Rare earths, in particular which, as described above, are among the strategic metals, are mainly mined and processed in China.
And end to the western world’s dependency on China is not currently in sight. But the countries in it have recognized the inherent pressure: The US and the EU are working with increased zeal on developing their own sources for the mining of strategic metals and on developing new technologies for their extraction.