The UK’s changing rare earth landscape

Posted on: 01/03/2023

Could bacteria, ionic liquids and electronic waste help build the UK supply chains and resilience for EVs, wind turbines and laptops?

Critical minerals (CMs) are a set of elements, compounds and materials which are produced in relatively low quantities but are essential to many high value applications in a multitude of sectors including aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, renewable energy, manufacturing, healthcare and defence. The need to decarbonise and electrify our economies, as well as produce the technologies that make our everyday lives easier, has put an unavoidable focus on the global supply chains for these CMs. The UK Government formally recognised this focus in July 2022 with the launch of the UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy, setting out the approach to secure a resilient long term supply of CMs to the UK. The Strategy has three main pillars:

  • Accelerate the development of the UK’s capabilities
  • Collaborate with international partners
  • Enhance international markets.

Around the same time, the UK Government established the Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre (CMIC), with a remit to produce data, intelligence and reports to support the critical minerals and manufacturing industries in mitigating the criticality of the minerals they depend upon.

To complement the Strategy development and provide new avenues for delivery on the international front, Innovate UK KTN led a team of experts on a Critical Materials Global Expert Mission to North America in May 2022, meeting with a variety of stakeholders from the mining, materials, manufacturing and innovation arenas in Canada and the US. These relationships will continue to be developed for the mutual benefit of our innovation and industry communities (a report on the findings from the Mission is available here).

The Strategy also contained a Criticality assessment of 18 minerals important to the UK economy. Amongst the most critical are the rare earth elements (REEs), particularly because of their use in permanent magnets (PMs) that are used in important applications (electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, consumer electronics, defence equipment). Innovate UK KTN produced a report summarising the opportunity for the UK to invest in the supply chain for REEs and PMs, which can be found here. The report recommended a raft of funding and community building activities across the value chain, to adopt and develop new technologies to improve ESG performance, and work internationally to secure primary and secondary REE feedstocks.

Following the Strategy launch and the REE supply chain opportunity report, Innovate UK are delivering the Circular Critical Materials Supply Chains programme. Announced by the Department for Business and Trade, the two-year, £15 million programme will provide support and funding to develop UK rare earth supply chains through collaborative research and development projects, feasibility studies and Innovation Exchange challenges. The programme aims to accelerate the research and commercialisation of REE up-, mid- and down-stream processes, magnet manufacturing processes, circular supply chains and materials discovery alongside support for new investment mechanisms, policies and standards.

With the demand for REEs set to grow rapidly over the coming years and decades, now is the time to take action and invest in projects that can onshore significant parts of the supply chain, and innovate to create new ones.

A recent study completed by Innovate UK KTN has shown that there are innovation opportunities in:

  • Biological approaches for rare earth element separation and purification, including the use of microorganisms and hyperaccumulator plants
  • Widening the application of novel chemical separation methods including ionic liquids, supramolecular frameworks and mesoporous adsorption materials
  • Adapting methods used to recover metals and materials from waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE)
  • Developing new materials and redesigning current materials for use in permanent magnets.

We will explore these opportunities in more detail in further articles. If you would like to hear more information about the Circular Critical Materials Supply Chains programme or find out how you can get involved, please contact one of Innovate UK KTN’s experts and sign up to our mailing list here.

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Related programme

Circular Critical Materials Supply Chains

Circular Critical Materials Supply Chains

This £15 million programme will support the development of resilient UK based supply chains for rare earth elements, with a focus on primary (mine to magnet) and secondary (End of Life to magnet) supply chains.


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