Low-carbon targets could be missed if SIM report recommendations go unheeded

17 May 2011

Getting a grip on the flow of chemical elements in and out of our country is crucial to hitting sustainability targets like low-carbon transport, the Royal Society of Chemistry said today in response to the Science and Technology Select Committee report on Strategically Important Metals.

Satisfying electric car demand is a concern, as they are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Lithium is listed on the CIKTN 'Endangered Elements' table as being of limited availability with a future risk to supply.

 "The UK government has said that, while moving towards a low-carbon transport infrastructure, priority will be given to the use of biofuels where no alternatives are available, such as aviation. This will place additional emphasis on the use of electricity for the powering of cars," said Dr Brian Carter, RSC Environmental Sciences Programme Manager.

"If a greater proportion of cars will need to be powered by electricity then there will be an increased need for lithium to be used in batteries for these cars. We'll need new supplies of lithium, as well as research into ways to recycle the lithium already in use."

Mapping out the flow of the elements should have an impact on all product design. Knowing that there is a limited viable supply of indium, researchers have started to develop new materials for touchscreens, which currently employ the little-recycled indium tin oxide (ITO).  At the current levels of touchscreen use and growth, some estimates put the remaining indium supply at just 15 years' worth.

'Scarce natural resources' is an important theme in the International Year of Chemistry 2011, designated by the UN as a year of celebrations of the importance of chemistry.

Identifying the UK's 'fugitive imports and exports' is just one of the excellent recommendations made by the report, said Dr Mike Pitts, the RSC's Champion for Sustainable Product Design.

"We're really pleased with today's Strategically Important Metals report - it shows that materials efficiency should be high on the Government's agenda," said Dr Pitts.

"In previous years the focus has been on the carbon economy, but carbon's just one of eighty-odd elements whose movements we should be keeping a close eye on.

"The 'fugitive imports and exports' in our waste stream need to be better understood so we can make the best use of our scarce natural resources, so it's very welcome to see the Committee recommending a review of goods and waste in the UK."

Dr Pitts also said companies aiming to recycle their waste can get better prices abroad for poorer efficiency recycling, while in the UK we have good recycling.

"This report recognises we can show the private sector the economic potential of good recovery and recycling," he added. "As as result of the discussions leading up to this report the RSC has seen chemists working more closely with geologists, materials scientists, recyclers and product designers. This kind of collaboration means we can design more sustainable products and better manage our molecules and elements."

The RSC would like to have seen greater emphasis on the economic and social opportunities that the UK has to research into alternative materials that do not rely on these metals at all. The Sustainable Global Society report, produced with four other world chemical societies warned that resources are finite, and in some instances are already in very short supply, but also gives the positive message that chemists can and will provide some of the solutions needed to move to a sustainable world.

Related Link

A Sustainable Global Society

How Can Materials Chemistry Help? A white paper from the Chemical Sciences and Society Summit (CS3) 2010

Related Links

Link icon Periodic table of the endangered elements
CIKTN's table of the endangered elements

External links will open in a new browser window

Contact and Further Information

Press Office
Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BA