Critical Materials for Emerging Technologies

Teacher’s manual       Lecture

Many technologies rely on elements whose supply remains insecure. It is these elements that we call “critical”. This module aims to point out the importance of a secure supply of materials for our economy and society.

Most of the known elements in the periodic table are relatively scarce. The number of different materials and the total mass used has steadily been increasing along with technological progress, economic and population growth, but there is only a limited amount of resources and some materials are (already) extremely scarce. This should make learners understand why we need criticality to take into account the implications of a material’s scarcity for our economy and society. To illustrate the complexity of this issue, the examples of a mobile phone, wind power and electric vehicles are used. These key technologies for the future and a green energy transition require very specific elements like cobalt, neodymium, nickel etc. Thus, the availability of these technologies is directly related to the availability of these materials, and their price is a reflection of their criticality.

But physical scarcity of resources is not the only problem, as many materials are extracted in only a few countries, which makes their supply subject to political influences by those countries and often also coincidental with human rights abuses and environmental pollution. Many materials are only mined in combination with other elements or are a byproduct of their extraction, which links the supply risks of those materials together.

Increasing mineral scarcity could be solved by a circular approach to materials, but their dissipation into tiny amounts makes their recovery often unprofitable or physically impossible today. Nonetheless, we have no other choice but to aim for a Circular Economy.

Learning Objectives:

  • Define criticality;
  • Explain why materials’ scarcity is a problem for our economy and society;
  • Understand that different devices require different, sometimes very scarcely available materials;
  • Explain the effect of dissipation;
  • Explain the idea of a circular economy;
  • Explain which circular economy measures can help reduce criticality