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EU Innovation push in raw materials

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The European Commission has put forward an ambitious European Innovation Partnership for raw materials whose objective is to establish Europe as the vanguard of raw material exploration, extraction, processing, recycling and substitution technologies by 2020. Central aims include ensuring a sustainable supply of raw materials for the European industry, as well as helping EU companies put innovative technologies onto the market along the entire value chain.

Raw materials play a major role in several sectors, including high-tech ones, but their supply is often under pressure. Therefore, the new European Innovation Partnership (EIP) is a key piece of work for the European Commission in today's difficult economic climate because it could contribute to boosting Europe's competitiveness, equipping it with the ability to develop technologies and create the right environment for such technologies. Essentially, this will be done by bringing together governments, local authorities, companies, researchers and other interested parties to work out joint strategies. Pulling together capital and human resources should allow Europe to roll out innovative ways of supplying and using raw materials. The partnership covers a very broad area, from primary (virgin) raw materials to secondary (recycled) materials whether they are hosted on land or on the seabed.

Technological and non-technological targets

The European Commission has proposed a number of concrete targets to be achieved by 2020. On the technology side, these include, inter alia, up to ten innovative pilot actions (e.g. demonstration plants) for exploration, extraction and processing, collection and recycling. Substitutes for at least three key applications of critical raw materials should be developed as well.

Two examples of the targets on the non-technological side are to create a network of Research, Education and Training Centres on Sustainable Mining and Materials Management (M³) and a pro-active EU strategy for its dealings with multilateral organisations and in bilateral relations in the areas covered by the European Innovation Partnership. Other examples are demand-side instruments such as new industrial standards, certification processes or public procurement.

The background to all this is Europe 2020, the EU's strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth,  and its Innovation Union flagship initiative. In a nutshell, the Innovation Union aims to improve conditions and access to finance for research and innovation in Europe, to ensure that innovative ideas can be turned into products and services that create growth and jobs. In addition, the EU's Industrial Policy flagship initiative refers to raw materials as one of ten actions to boost Europe's industrial competitiveness.

Wide range of sectors covered, including metallic minerals

Sectors such as the construction, chemicals, automotive, aerospace, machinery and equipment, which provide a total value added of €1,324 billion and employment for some 30 million people, all depend on access to raw materials. These downstream industrial sectors will be involved in the partnership, as well as other sectors further up the supply chain of raw materials such as metallic minerals producers. The EU is currently highly dependent on imports of metallic minerals as its domestic production is limited to about three percent of world production.

The potential benefits are considerable. For example, companies, in particular SMEs, operating to high environmental and social standards should benefit from faster dissemination of innovations and more favourable investment conditions while European consumers should benefit indirectly through lower manufacturing costs as, for example, expensive raw materials that are difficult to obtain are replaced by alternative materials. In addition, there should be a positive impact on the environment thanks to reduced waste streams and better use of recycled products. Another big plus is that local, regional and national government organisations will be involved very early in the research and development process.

Ongoing projects

And all of this will be building on the success of ongoing projects such as those funded by the EU's funding programme, the Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7). One example of such a project is 'ProMine', which aims to improve the EU’s knowledge base for actual and future deposits and is expected to develop the first ever pan-European mineral resources database and detailed 4D computer modelling system. Another recent example is 'I²Mine', a project that aims to develop innovative technologies and concepts for the sustainable and intelligent deep mine of the future. This is essentially about automating the digging process in an environmentally-friendly way and ensuring maximum safety for workers.

The European Innovation Partnership is not a financing instrument, although there is a link with EU funding. Its objective is to streamline existing and new activities in the field of raw materials. To this end, the next step is now to adopt a 'Strategic Implementation Plan' in 2013.

The pillars of raw materials

The new partnership is also related to the European Commission's Raw Materials Initiative, which established an integrated strategy to respond to the different challenges related to access to non-energy and non-agricultural raw materials.

This Initiative, launched in 2008 and renewed in 2011, is based on three pillars: ensuring a level playing field in the supply of raw materials from global markets; fostering a sustainable supply of raw materials from European sources, and boosting resource efficiency and promoting recycling.

For more, read the EU policy paper entitled 'Tackling the challenges in commodity markets and on raw materials'.

Contact

'Metals, Minerals, Raw Materials' Unit
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry

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