Britain should return to its mining past in order to secure its future supply of strategically important metals, researchers told a Parliamentary hearing today.
In recent months concerns have continued to fester regarding the supply of key raw materials such as the ‘rare earth elements’ which are vital components of many modern technologies. With China flexing its current stranglehold over rare earths, America has recently seen its mothballed rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, California, begin to gear up for production again.
Today, witnesses testifying in front of Britain’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also stressed the important role that domestic production has to play. Although Britain probably does not have mineable deposits of rare earths, some equally important metals could be extracted from its land.
“We’ve tended to neglect what we’ve got in this country,” David Manning, a soil scientist representing the Geological Society of London, told a hearing on strategically important metals.
In its written evidence, the society notes that the UK has “significant potential reserves” of metals such as indium and tungsten in south west England. These elements are used in technologies including solar cells and industrial catalysts, respectively.
Manning also notes that offshore mining is possible, with some sand deposits hosting commercially viable amounts of tin, for example. Linking up with other European nations and North America could allow countries to pool their domestic resources to mitigate against future supply problems in a wider number of metals.
The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining also urged the UK to encourage the re-opening of mines closed due to competition from countries such as China, where lower safety and environmental standards allow cheaper production.
“In the long term, concerted action, such as plans to re-open mines and recycle materials more effectively, … is needed to secure a less vulnerable supply chain for the advanced technology industries in the UK and other countries,” states the institute’s evidence, while the Royal Society of Chemistry also cites the possibility of revisiting domestic supplies.
As fees for English universities are set to massively increase, nurturing the next generation of minerals researchers must also be a priority, the select committee was told. “The most important thing from our perspective is to have the right people coming through the system,” said Manning.
Image: an old tin mine in Cornwall, photo by ‘Strange Ones’ via Flickr under Creative Commons.