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Materials criticality: a global challenge, especially for the EU

Global megatrends, including demographic and climate changes, urbanisation and the limits to resources and energy are the drivers of future change [Strategic Foresight: Towards the 3rd Strategic Programme of Horizon 2020, 2015]. The unprecedented trend of population growth in a resource constrained world increasingly forces business and policy makers to integrate sustainability considerations into their decision making.

Non-energy and non-agricultural raw materials underpin the global economy and our quality of life. They are vital for the word’s economy and for the development of environmentally friendly technologies such as renewable energy systems. Especially the EU is highly dependent on imports, and securing supplies has therefore become crucial [ERA-MIN Research Agenda, 2013; Strategic Implementation plan for the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials, 2013].

The circular economy as a way out

The last 150 years of industrial evolution have been dominated by a one-way or linear model of production and consumption in which goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold, used and then discarded or incinerated as waste. In the face of sharp volatility increases across the global economy and proliferating signs of resource depletion, the call for a new economic model is getting louder. The quest for a substantial improvement in resource performance across the economy has led businesses to explore ways to reuse products or their components and restore more of their precious material, energy and labour inputs. A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. The economic benefit of transitioning to this new business model is estimated to be worth more than one trillion dollar in material savings [World Economic Forum & Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2014].

In a linear economy the functionality is lost after a first use or in the best case after some down cycling phases. In a circular economy the goal is to keep the functionality and therefore value of a material as high as possible over a time period as long as possible. Materials will circle throughout the economy without being removed from it in the form of non-functional waste. The circular economy is the economic system in which resources are kept at the highest possible level of functionality at all times.


Figure 1: Material functionality in a linear and a circular economy [VITO, 2015].

Moving from the traditional, linear ‘make, use, dispose’ economy to a circular economy requires increased reuse, remanufacturing and recycling of products. This is an important aspect of the EU’s strategy to ensure the security of raw materials supply [EIP Raw Materials Scoreboard, 2016].

Advanced engineering materials and technologies are key to a circular economy

Advanced engineering materials and technologies present indispensable and exciting solutions for optimal resource use, substitution of critical materials, metal recovery, recycling of waste streams, and shorter loop closures.

Resource efficiency

In minimising the use of materials, advanced material technologies obviously contribute to lifetime extension and repair of products and especially to the use of ever less materials to provide a certain function to a product. To give just a few examples:

  • Additive manufacturing that bring important benefits related to raw materials usage and waste production;
  • Nanostructured materials that deliver superior performance using only minute amount of materials in many possible application areas such as medicine, waste-water treatment, air purification, energy storage devices, composite materials, and consumer goods;
  • Modern surface treatments like physical and chemical vapour deposition technologies that protect tools from wear and corrosion.


The substitution of critical raw materials (CRM) is another approach to mitigate the supply risks of raw materials. As substitution research takes many years to provide realistic solutions, it is a real insurance policy to develop timely research on substitution, to make available a set of options for possible preventive changes in the product design and the elaboration of contingency plans. Examples include:

  • Plasma technology enabling the substitution of fossil-fuel plastics by bio-based polymers for inter alia food packaging applications;
  • Modern multi-scale modelling to predict the magnetic properties of substitutes for REE magnets;
  • Versatile graphene materials with high potential for substituting scare resources for electronic applications.

Resource recovery and waste recycling

While showing vast potential also in this context, advanced material technologies remain particularly unexplored in resource recovery, cycle closure and the use of recycled materials in products. Here are some examples:

  •  Powder processing currently used in powder metallurgy and ceramics used to upcycle fine waste streams in added-value products;
  • New electrochemical processing technology and novel adsorption materials to boost the recovery of CRMs from low grade, complex industrial waste streams;
  • Waste particles upcycled by surface functionalization tailored to the envisaged application, e.g. by surface activation to produce performant composites with high recyclables content. 
  • Novel material processing for mineral waste materials that can have pozzolanic properties upon activation, thus being potential cement replacement binder materials;  
  • Advanced characterization techniques allowing the precise determination of critical element content of waste materials to gauge their economic exploration feasibility. 

It must be stressed though that closing material cycles will not avoid the (sustainable) mining of primary raw materials that are necessary to sustain global population growth. Recycling can significantly contribute to though not to secure the supply of (critical) material resources in the raw materials constrained European economy.

Feeding & closing loops in the Circular Economy

As such, advanced material technologies are key to sustainable mining and recycling, to feed and close cascaded material and product cycles in a viable, growing circular economy.



Figure 2: Circular economy scheme, taken from [Circular economy, A new relationship with our goods and materials would save resources and energy and create local jobs, Walter R. Stahel, NATURE, Vol. 531, 24 March 2016].


Resource efficiency in manufacturing and processing, substitution of critical raw materials, resource recovery and recycling straightforwardly match the above concept of the Circular Economy. Non technological, new business concepts can also greatly support the effective use of raw materials. With the increased provision of services instead of products from economic production, product and material loops can be closed shorter than recycling. Advanced engineering materials can play a major role here as well, e.g. by extending the life time of products by improving the wear and corrosion resistance (shortest cycle), or providing controlled adhesion/release properties to facilitate remanufacturing. Moreover, material technologies may enable the building-in of sensors and communication systems in an Internet of Things approach, to monitor the status of products in a sharing community.    

 The role of EuMaT ETP

The newly established EuMaT WG8 on Raw Materials will act as the leading forum to contribute to the debate about the key role of advanced engineering materials and technologies in resource efficiency, substitution of critical materials, metal recovery, recycling or shorter cycle closure of products and waste, providing market and science based, realistic solutions for the EU manufacturing and processing industries.

The working group aims at triggering research and innovation ideas & activities in the H2020 Research Programme targeting the Societal Challenge of Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials, as well as Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies (LEIT).

As such, sustainable materials management touches upon all seven H2020 societal challenges, in particular the ones addressed in SC5 Climate Action, Environment, Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials.


EuMaT WG8 Raw Materials Chair

Research Manager Sustainable Materials Management Unit

VITO Vision on Technology

Boeretang 200, B-2400 MOL, Belgium