Developing critical raw materials in Europe

Raw materials

Director-General for the European Commission’s JRC, Vladimír Šucha, explains the role the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials plays in the development of critical raw materials in Europe.

The demand for critical raw materials continues

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission’s science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy. In accordance to this, the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials (EIP RM) is a stakeholder platform that brings together representatives from industry, public services, academia and NGOs. Its mission is to provide high-level guidance to the European Commission, Members States and private actors on innovative approaches to the challenges related to raw materials.

SciTech Europa Quarterly speaks with Vladimír Šucha, Director-General of the JRC, about the importance of the partnership between the JRC and the RMIS, and the current trends in raw materials.

What is the work and role of the JRC?

The JRC is there to put science at the heart of EU policy making. We produce and manage scientific evidence, data and information for decision makers at all levels from policy officers to Commissioners, but also Members of the European Parliament and Member State authorities.

Our scientific support covers a wide range of policy areas, whilst also understanding the policy needs, we diversified into areas such as agriculture, transport, climate change and Earth observation. Now, while we continue doing our best in those areas, we are also focusing on the major European and global challenges, such as artificial intelligence and digital economy, cyber-security, food security, migration, mobility or low-carbon society. What we offer in all of these policy areas is not merely research, but relevant context, scientifically sound insights, and knowledge management to help shape better policies and strategies.  The policies for raw materials are one of those areas where EU Member States are fully in the driving seat, and we are responsible for proposing strategies, initiatives and action plans for harmonising the measures taken by Member States and representing them in global projects.

We are on the High-Level Steering Group, bringing in the science-evidence perspective, and we are also involved in many operational and working groups. Moreover, our knowledge management expertise plays a key role in improving the EU Raw Materials Knowledge Base, particularly in developing the Raw Materials Information System (RMIS). The RMIS is the European Commission’s knowledge platform on abiotic and biotic raw materials along their entire supply chains. It includes, among others, raw materials profiles, country profiles and trade, environmental and social aspects of raw material markets. It is also the depository of results of current Horizon 2020 projects on Raw Materials and circular economy calls.

Can you tell us about the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials?

The EIP RM was established in 2012 to reinforce the objectives of the Raw Materials Initiative: the fair and sustainable supply of raw materials from global markets for the EU, ensuring resource efficiency. It also aims to raise awareness about the security of supply of raw materials. Moreover, the EIP RM has been instrumental in securing Research and Innovation funding for the industrial sectors related to raw materials supply chains, with important contributions to investments through the FP7 and Horizon 2020 EU Research Programmes.

The EIP RM Strategic Implementation Plan was approved in 2013, setting out the objectives, targets and actions for EU raw materials policy by 2020. Among others, they focused on the coordination of research and innovation, the development of technologies for raw materials production and the substitution of raw materials, waste management, and improving the skills and knowledge base and better positioning the EU as a global actor.

What are the biggest trends in raw materials?

The Commission’s 2018 EU Raw materials Scoreboard, produced by the JRC and the RMIS, offer some illustrative examples. The global supply and demand for raw materials has increased considerably over the last 40 years. Now, the ongoing energy transition is also bringing about a shift towards the more intensive use of certain minerals and critical raw materials. Global material extraction has grown 14-fold, from six billion tonnes in 1900 to around 84 billion tonnes in 2015. The biggest increase was observed for non-metallic minerals with a 45-fold increase, followed by a 39-fold increase for metallic minerals, a 15-fold increase for fossil fuels and a more than 5-fold increase for biomass.

In the last 20 years, the global production of nickel and copper doubled, whilst the production of iron and aluminium more than doubled. With respect to battery raw materials, the production of cobalt and lithium increased four and 2.8 times. Finally, rare earths production grew by 1.5 times. In line with global economic trends, the consumption of raw materials in Asia (primarily in China) has increased exponentially in the last decades, surpassing the rest of the world back in 2006. Resource use is expected to grow at similarly high rates unless we become more efficient and innovative in using them. In fast developing regions, up to three billion people will move from low to middle class patterns of consumption by 2030. As a result, by 2050, global metals extraction and biomass production could increase by at least 50 % and non-metallic minerals production by at least 100%.

Looking at the EU, our roadmap for electrification of road transport estimates an increase in the number of electric vehicles by more than 15 million by 2025. High quantities of critical and non-critical raw materials will be needed to sustain this growth in electro-mobility. For electric traction motors, we will need more neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium. Whereas for the batteries we will need more cobalt, graphite and lithium, whilst building more lightweight body structures will require more niobium.

The same growth is also observed in global trade with raw materials, which increased considerably more than the global trade in all commodities. Iron and copper world trade in volume terms increased 2.5 times since 2000, whereas for nickel it grew more than five-fold. The trade in zinc, lead and aluminum went up by half in less than 20 years. With the increased global concentration in the production of critical raw materials, supply risks increased, and price volatility reached unprecedented heights. The use of non-tariff trade barriers surged affecting all markets, as well as the use of tariffs since 2018 – fueled by the US-China trade war.

What are the main limitations/challenges when it comes to EIP RM?

EIP RM has been very successful in setting actions and implementing them. The main challenge comes from societal and economic dynamics and the way the EU and its Member States design their policies. The EIP RM was created seven years ago and its targets were set for 2020. In the meantime, the EU and its international position changed, and new challenges emerged. We must now go beyond achieving earlier goals and completing our action plans, and we must make EU materials policy a cross-cutting field that influences many other policy areas.

The developments of the last few years point in the right direction with new strategic documents dedicated sections on raw materials include:

  • The Circular Economy Action Plan (2015),
  • The European Defence Action Plan (2016),
  • The New Industrial Policy Strategy (2017),
  • Strategic Action Plan on Batteries (2018).

The challenge is to bring raw materials actions in line with all the other goals and actions proposed for these other priority areas.

What next for the JRC? How do you see the EIP RM developing in the future?

We have already seen a growing interest in the RM community and industry to move from the linear economic model towards a circular model with focus on the supply chains of raw materials and their security, or on value chains for strategic products that are essential for the competitiveness of the EU economy.

Now there is a clear need to decide on a revision of the EIP RM setting-up a similar follow-up structure in the area of raw materials in Europe. Such a new European project will have to cover the entire value chain of raw materials, by involving sectors in the EU economy with larger shares in value added and jobs and with high innovative potential. We will have to demonstrate how the sustainability and security of raw materials promotes tackling global challenges such as sustainable development, energy transition, biodiversity protection and social responsibility.

The JRC will continue to support the process with its research and knowledge management work. We are involved in the Strategic Action Plan for Batteries; we work on dual-use material. We are evaluating market trends and risks for primary and secondary raw materials, as well as for strategic products containing CRMs. We are also developing further the RMIS as a tool for knowledge management; we work on linking its content to the platforms of various other European projects and organisations and allowing their knowledge to propagate through our platform. We will also use the RMIS to promote new policy ideas and to inform the public about the latest scientific research in the field; we strongly believe that providing an overview on raw material flows in our economy is a great best way to support European manufacturing and enhance its competitiveness and to accelerate innovation.


Vladimir Sucha

Director General

DG Joint Research Centre

European Commission

Tweet @VladimirSucha

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