Strategic metals or critical metals?

The proliferation of think tank reports and government initiatives show that global governments have concerns of the security of supply of certain resources.  Various assessments have come to different conclusions about the most at risk elements or resources, but a consensus has formed around a key group of metals, notably platinum group metals, cobalt, tungsten and rare earths.

What has not been well defined is the terminology to describe the field.  Some lists are restricted to metals only, whilst others include a broader range of materials and resources.

Strategic metals are generally defined as those metals which are required for the national defence of a country, but are threatened by supply disruptions due to limited domestic production.  The United States tends to adhere to this definition and cites access to adequate strategic materials as a key component of US national security.

The European Union is an organisation focused on trade and economic development and leaves defence matters to its individual member states.  The European Commission has therefore adopted the term ‘critical raw materials,’ which tends to refer to metals or materials required for the economic development only, but which again are at risk of supply disruption.

However, the distinction between ‘strategic’ and ‘critical’ metals/materials/resources is not used consistently.  For example, a 2011 UK parliamentary report states that “strategically important metals comprise the rare earth elements, the platinum group elements and other main group elements of importance to the UK. Of particular importance are those specialist metals that are vital to advanced manufacturing, lowcarbon technologies and other growing industries.”

Whatever terminology is used, competition between different industrial sectors and different countries for the world’s resources is increasing.  Government policies and strategies are being developed but criticality is a complex and dynamic phenomenon.  Recycling, increased extraction and substitution will all have a role to play in supplying the resources required to satisfy the growing world population’s insatiable demand for energy and consumer goods and the desire of individual countries to protect their national security.

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