Raw materials are the lifeblood of European industry. They are used in the products we use every day, such as mobile phones, thin-film solar cells, lithium ion batteries, fiber optic cables, and synthetic fuels. A smartphone, for example, can contain up to 50 different metals, which serve to keep it light and compact.
According to the European Commission, at least 30 million jobs in Europe are dependent on access to raw materials. The increase in global demand, the lack of availability due to the lengthy production times of the extractive industries, and the increasingly frequent use of export restrictions by resource-rich countries all have a negative influence on the competitiveness of European industry. Innovation in the field of raw materials – whether in extraction, transformation, recycling or substitution – is therefore the key to guaranteeing, in an environmentally sustainable way, growth and employment in Europe.
For this reason, in 2010 the European Commission began a process of analysis to determine which raw materials are considered “critical” (Critical Raw Materials- CRM), identifying 20 that, from an economic point of view, are critical for the emerging technologies sector, and from a supply point of view, are largely produced by a small number of countries.
Analysing some of the main emerging technologies that stimulate demand for critical raw materials, we find for example technologies that use antimony tin oxide, as well as micro condensers for antimony, lithium ion batteries and synthetic fuels for cobalt, fuel cells and catalyzers for platinum (platinoids), catalyzers and seawater desalinators for palladium (platinoids), micro condensers and ferroalloys for niobium, and permanent magnets and laser technology for neodymium (rare earth). The critical aspect in terms of supply is that 90% of the global supply of critical raw materials comes from non-European countries, such as China, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazil. In addition to this high level of production, there are other aggravating factors, such as the low degree of substitutability and the low level of recycling.
The list, updated every three years, could contribute to stimulating European production of critical raw materials, and facilitate the launch of new mining and recycling activities. In addition, the list is used by the European Commission in establishing an order of priority for needs and actions. As outlined in the Europe 2020 strategy, Europe’s efforts have turned to transforming the challenge of raw materials into an opportunity to strengthen Europe’s industrial capacities, exploiting the potential of innovation and R&D. Specific initiatives have been set up, such as the “Raw Materials Initiative”, the European Partnership on Raw Materials, and resources have been allocated for research projects as part of the Horizon 2020 programme and the Knowledge Innovation Communities (KIC) financed by the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT).
EIT Raw Materials, the KIC approved by EIT in December 2014, is the largest network in the world of industries, universities, and research centres financed at a European level to stimulate innovation in the raw materials sector, to improve their extraction, recycling, reuse, and substitution in the production process, particularly with regard to critical raw materials. The KIC has six international centers, coordinated by the headquarters in Berlin. The Southern Europe branch of the Raw Materials KIC is based in Rome, at the ENEA Research Center, and coordinates the partners in Italy, Spain, Hungary and Malta. Italy, Europe’s second-biggest manufacturer and almost totally dependent on the importation of raw materials, has been one of the promoters of the Raw Materials KIC from the beginning. Italy participates with 17 members from industry and the world of research, to find original and innovative answers to these strategic problems for the future of our economy. The Italian industries, universities and research centers involved in the KIC use their skills and capacity for innovation on topics such as the recycling of materials, eco-design (considering the sustainability of the product at the design stage), the substitution of raw materials that are critical (with a supply risk) or toxic, and innovative metallurgical applications that aim to find alternative materials in order to cope with the scarcity of resources.
Trentino is one of the main partners in this consortium, thanks to its range of skills, and to its activities in the area of training, entrepreneurship and research. The partnership is realized through the Trentino Innovation Hub (HIT) - a collaboration between the University of Trento, the Edmund Mach Foundation, Fondazione Bruno Kessler and Trentino Sviluppo - which has the aim of representing the whole Trentino ecosystem of research and innovation within the large European-financed projects, to create opportunities for its members and for the province.
The Raw Materials KIC has several projects that involve the industrial and research institutions of the Trentino area. Some of these projects are already underway, and involve the processes of technology transfer and incubation. One project that started in January 2016 is called SIMP (Strengthening Incubation Methods and Processes for EIT Raw Materials), and aims to set up a European network of incubators to share best practices and incubation models specifically for the raw materials sector. The other project, which the University of Trento has been particularly involved in, is SPICAM (Strengthening Pre-incubation assessment methods for EIT Raw Materials) and deals with sharing best practices and methods of technology transfer from the academic setting to business.