1. Exploration and raw materials resource assessment

A sustainable supply of raw materials is vital for Europe’s future. However, Europe faces difficulties in securing raw materials due to a high reliance on imports, increasing demand and decreasing quality and decreasing availability of resources.

Exploration activities are the initial step in the raw materials value chain. The industry faces an increasing number of challenges, such as the need for deeper exploration, the need for exploration under cover, the need to increase efficiency in terms of cost and resources, and the need for exploration in more challenging environments. At the same time, the industry needs access to highly skilled, entrepreneurial exploration professionals and must promote a better understanding and acceptance of the exploration industry within wider society.

To meet these challenges, and to secure sustainable, efficient and successful exploration for the future, Europe needs new exploration technologies, innovative research and advances in education. EIT RawMaterials will facilitate all of this through bridging and synergies of knowledge from industry, research and education.

2. Mining in challenging environments

Throughout its existence, humanity has depended on the earth for its survival. The surface provides water, crops, fruits, grazing for livestock and more, but below the surface there is a diverse quantity of raw materials that are vital for today’s modern day living and that we need to use sustainably without jeopardising supplies for future generations.

Europe faces great challenges in securing raw materials in a sustainable way due to high reliance on imports, increasing consumption and decreasing quality and availability of resources.

Mining activities forms the initial part of the raw material value-chain. Mining in Europe needs greater support in order to secure and sustain this vital part of the value chain. The industry is facing surmounting challenges today, such as, deeper mining, social licence to operate, access to land, higher production rates, but at a lower cost and more challenging environments, both underground and on surface. At the same time, the industry needs access to a new highly skilled generation of entrepreneurial mining professionals and a better wider-society understanding and acceptance of the whole industry.

To meet these challenges, new innovative mining technologies, research and education are required through bridging of business, research and education, to enable a sustainable, efficient and successful mining industry now and in the future.

Europe is the birthplace of modern exploration technologies and mining. Through its vision ‘To develop raw materials into a major strength for Europe’, EIT RawMaterials aims to build up Europe’s mineral extraction industry, providing opportunities through the development of innovative, smart and efficient technologies, specialist higher education with an added focus on entrepreneurship, and integration of the entire raw material value chain.

3. Increased resource efficiency in mineral and metallurgical processes

Processing of primary and secondary resources is a vital link in the raw materials value chain. Improving, innovating and rethinking the processes and technologies involved can open up new business opportunities which are more efficient and have less of an environmental impact. New processes and technologies in processing can potentially reshape the idea of what a resource is and secure supplies of raw materials for the future.

When it comes to processing, European industries and research institutions have both long-standing experience and an extensive knowledge base. They provide state-of-the art solutions for processing resources — solutions that are utilised across the globe.

However, these modern-day solutions face a number of challenges — fluctuations in resource quality, the introduction of new resources, increased safety demands, environmental impact, and increasingly rapid changes in demands and markets. At the same time, it is crucial to ensure an efficient transfer of knowledge within the skilled processing workforce so that it can be retained by newer generations. EIT RawMaterials has set out to meet these challenges by supporting and facilitating the improvement and creation of innovative processing methods and technologies. In turn, these will catalyse new business opportunities for the processing of both primary and secondary resources. Within EIT RawMaterials’ unique and comprehensive community covering the entire raw materials value chain, such developments can be matched with needs and demands — both upstream in the mining and mineral exploration sectors as well as downstream in the recycling, substitution and circular economy sectors.

4. Substitution of critical and toxic materials in products for optimised performance

A key element of human nature is the ability to exploit and design materials to fulfil certain purposes. In our modern age, cost and optimised performance have been the key drivers to find substitutes for existing solutions. Scientists and engineers have learned to make use of almost every element in the periodic table to create ever more complex materials for specific applications. In recent years, awareness of the substitution of toxic and resource critical materials has grown.

An increasing number of biological compatibility studies have raised concerns regarding the use of certain specific kinds of material. Investigations into the resource criticality of materials, i.e. their economic importance, supply risk, and environmental footprint, have shown that there may be bottlenecks in materials supply, both for the production of current key technologies as well as the breakthrough of emerging ones. The shift towards renewable energies, e-mobility, and Industry 4.0 are examples of extensive innovation processes that trigger the need for new kinds of advanced materials. Substitution is an intervention into an industrial ecosystem that brings great potential for new businesses and economic growth.

Within this context, EIT RawMaterials has identified substitution as a pillar of its strategy to turn raw materials into a major strength for Europe. The substitution of resource critical, toxic and low performing materials is considered at elemental, material, process, and system levels. The network supports innovation and business creation offering solutions and added value, particularly in the fields of sustainable mobility, energy, machinery, and ICT. The current portfolio encompasses projects on topics including energy storage, magnetic materials, hard materials, lightweight design, and materials and systems modelling. Innovative new services and business models that enable an optimised use of raw materials are also supported. These activities harmonise with education projects to encourage future experts in substitution-related fields and to raise awareness across wider society.

5. Recycling and material chain optimisation of end-of-life products

Across the globe, primary raw material sources are depleting, while the amounts of industrial waste and end-of-life-products are rapidly increasing. These waste streams contain valuable raw materials that can be extracted to meet the growing demands from global industrial production and consumption.

Considering the materials needs of an exponentially growing world population, recycling will have to evolve from a side stream to a major pillar of raw materials supply if we want to protect our planet and make business sustainable. Currently, recycling rates of some base metals are higher than 50%. However, a large number of crucial elements are almost completely lost in the value chain. This is particularly the case for less noble speciality metals used in functional materials, where production from primary resources often comes with large environmental footprints.

EIT RawMaterials supports innovation projects and new businesses that scale up and introduce new technological solutions to the market. These are aimed at improving both the amount and quality of raw materials recovered from secondary sources, that is, end-of-life products, industrial residues, tailings, and urban and landfill mining.

World-leading universities in the raw materials sector run related Master and PhD courses, and students are involved in many upscaling projects. For example, the current portfolio includes projects to develop cost-efficient dismantling technologies, optimise material supply logistics, and turn industrial waste into specified starting materials for industrial production.

6. Design of products and services for the circular economy

The EU is home to world leaders in manufacturing, game changing innovative technologies and an entrepreneurial infrastructure that can boost the transition to a resource-efficient and sustainable society as envisioned in the EU 2020 agenda. A sustainable supply of raw materials is vital, but the EU is highly dependent on imports of raw materials that are crucial for both this transition and for Europe’s industrial activity.

In particular, supplies of a range of ores, metals and rubber are vulnerable. A circular economy could increase the efficiency of primary resource consumption both across Europe and the world. By conserving materials embodied in high-value products, or returning waste to the economy as high-quality secondary raw materials, a circular economy would reduce the demand for primary raw materials. In turn, this would help to reduce Europe’s dependence on imports, reducing pressure on the procurement chains for many industrial sectors from the price volatility of international commodity markets and supply uncertainty due to scarcity and/or geopolitical factors.

The challenge for EIT RawMaterials is thus to fully utilise the potential of industrial symbiosis by applying a systemic perspective and revitalising the human capital in the raw materials sector through two strategic objectives:

DESIGNING SOLUTIONS: At the concept stage, many key decisions are made which have significant and lasting consequences from a raw materials perspective. In terms of system design in the future, a systemic approach to materials innovation, products, product-service systems, processes and wider systems across the whole lifecycle is essential. EIT RawMaterials will use powerful multi-scale modelling and decision-making support tools based on big data to offer new opportunities for designing smarter solutions.

CLOSING MATERIAL LOOPS: A radical shift is required: from linear to circular thinking. End-of-life products must be considered as resources for another cycle, while losses and stocks of unused materials must be minimised all along the value chain. In addition, interactions between materials must be taken into account in order to define the best circular solution from a systemic standpoint. Awareness of the benefits of closing material loops must be raised amongst students, industry and society.