By implementing its Critical Raw Materials Act, the European Union is seeking to become more self-sufficient in the supply of materials and raw materials of importance to the energy transition. In order to achieve that, the EU intends to open up new mines and increase its recycling capacity. VITO possesses a large amount of knowledge and expertise in the extraction of raw materials from primary and secondary material streams and is developing customised solutions for various companies in Belgium and in Europe. VITO is therefore able to play an important role in Europe's transition towards a materials and raw materials policy that seeks to bring about increased self-sufficiency.

A year ago, VITO received some good news from the High North. Near the small town of Kiruna in Sweden, the sub-soil was found to contain large quantities of rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are substances whose names (including scandium, yttrium and neodymium) will not ring any bells whatsoever, but which are crucial raw materials in a variety of high-tech applications, ranging from smartphones and electric cars to wind turbines. At the present time, rare earth metals are largely supplied from outside Europe, especially from China, where the products are not only extracted but also processed. That therefore makes Europe particularly dependent and therefore vulnerable when it comes to accessing these ‘critical’ raw materials that are indispensable to our economy. A new mine for rare earth metals would therefore be extremely welcome, not only for Kiruna and for Sweden, but for Europe as a whole.

Four objectives

To become more self-sufficient in the supply of important materials and raw materials, the European Commission presented its Critical Raw Materials Act, or CRM Act for short, in 2023. This contains four important objectives concerning strategic raw materials that will need to be achieved by 2030. The raw materials concerned are needed in sectors deemed to be of strategic importance in Europe, such as green energy, digitalisation, defence and space travel. 

First of all, 10 percent of the strategic raw materials consumed in Europe will also need to be extracted here. That means that new mines will need to be opened on the European continent. Secondly, the processing or refining of raw materials into semi-finished products will need to take place in Europe and be capable of satisfying 40 percent of demand from within Europe.  Thirdly, 15 percent of the raw materials consumed each year must be obtained from recycling. And fourthly, no more than 65 percent of a strategic raw material may come from any given country. 

VITO has already been active in the extraction of strategic and critical raw materials for many years now, from primary and secondary sources. This research is also being carried out across a broad spectrum, as a result of which VITO is in a position to make a strong contribution towards each of the four objectives of the CRM Act. ‘When the European Commission first published lists of critical raw materials back in 2011, we were already actively working with those materials here at VITO,’ said Liesbet Van den Abeele from VITO. ‘Those initial lists contained only 14 raw materials, but today, 34 raw materials are included on the list. That in itself serves to demonstrate the growing importance of this issue.’ 

Amongst other things, VITO's research is focusing on the extraction of valuable raw materials and materials from mine waste or from residue streams that occur during extraction. Prioritising this even more will enable the extraction of strategic raw materials in Europe (the first objective) to be increased, whilst also reducing the environmental impact of the mines. What is more, VITO also possesses a large amount of technological expertise in the recovery and recycling of raw materials from industrial waste or end-of-life products, such as discarded electronic equipment or batteries (the third objective). Finally, VITO's research into circular business models also underpins the achievement of the second objective, as increasing the extent to which materials are reused and avoiding excessive consumption of materials will reduce the need for primary semi-finished products. ‘That is why it's also important that the objectives have been drawn up in the form of percentages,’ said Liesbet Van den Abeele in passing. ‘That way, they can also be achieved by reducing the demand for primary materials.’

Three (+ one) technology platforms

Amongst other things, the technological research carried out by VITO within the CRM Act focuses on the chemical extraction of metals during three stages: extraction, purification and concentration and precipitation (chemical deposition). VITO is able to provide technological solutions, also known as technological platforms, for each of those stages.

‘Extraction can be compared to the way in which coffee beans are used to make coffee,’ said Jeroen Spooren from VITO. ‘One of the ways we can improve the extraction process, or leaching, is by making use of microwave radiation. That enables us to obtain selective reactions that require only a limited quantity of chemicals and energy.’ One of the purposes for which this method is used is as a means of extracting gold, silver and platinum group metals (such as platinum, palladium and rhodium) from waste products such as e-waste, solar panels or components from end-of-life vehicles in an aqueous solution. As part of a European project (PEACOC), a pilot installation based on this method will be taken into use in April 2024.

‘To increase the concentration, we are developing products such as sorbents, in other words, sponge-like materials that can adsorb certain constituents of an aqueous stream (the constituents attach themselves to the surface of the sorbents),’ explained Bart Michielsen from VITO. ‘This enables those components to be purified and their concentration to be increased.’ Examples of raw materials that can be extracted using this method are palladium, scandium, vanadium and, last but not least, lithium. For its part, VITO is also involved in another European project (LiCORNE), in which lithium is extracted from ores mined underground in Europe. This ‘white gold’ is perhaps the most well-known of all of the strategic raw materials, especially due to the fact that lithium-ion batteries are used in electric cars. 

The third technology platform is based on a process known as the gas diffusion electrocrystallisation method, mostly known as GDEx for short. ‘This method is powered by electricity and converts gases, such as carbon dioxide or oxygen, into substances that selectively react with the materials we are seeking to recover,’ said Xochitl Dominguez-Benetton from VITO. This enables valuable raw materials, such as precious metals, cobalt, manganese and lithium, to be recovered from aqueous waste streams. ‘The beauty of this is that those materials are upcycled into forms that have a function and can once more be incorporated into sustainable value chains.’ For example, VITO is coordinating a European project (FIREFLY), in which it has already been proven that metals from the platinum group can be recovered in this way and immediately re-used as a catalyst in the electrochemical oxidation of methanol. VITO is also taking part in a further European project (Rhinoceros), in which the technology is used for the recovery of nickel, cobalt and manganese, which, once upcycled, can be used directly in batteries. In the LiCORNE project, the GDEx method has also made it possible to extract all of the lithium present in the geothermal brine.  ‘An additional benefit of this method is that it is an excellent way of selectively recovering the metals if they are present in low concentrations within highly complex solutions,’ said Metin Bulut from VITO. ‘What is more, the process is fully electrically powered and no chemicals need to be added.' This method is also actively under development. In a factory in Greece, where catalytic converters from cars, photovoltaic panels and printed circuits are recycled, a pilot installation is currently operating that consists entirely of VITO technology. 

Jeroen Spooren also mentioned a fourth technology platform, which is primarily physical, not chemical, in its operation (as is the case with the other three). ‘Before a material can be chemically treated in order to extract raw materials, its concentration first needs to be increased by physico-chemical means. At VITO, we have an extensively equipped laboratory at our disposal that contains many different separation devices. Those devices are capable of separating a mix of materials into fractions, according to their properties, such as the grain size, their specific density and their magnetic properties.  Segregating the constituents in this way makes it possible for materials actually containing the desired raw materials to be separated out, after which their concentration can be increased even more using the technology platforms described above.’ 

A very important factor in all of this research is the cost of energy. For that reason, the technologies in use are very energy-efficient. ‘Apart from that, another factor we especially take into account at VITO is the environmental impact, which, just like the energy consumption, needs to be low. We capture each of these various dimensions in life-cycle analyses that we carry out for the different technologies available,’ said Liesbet Van den Abeele. ‘That way, we can get to see the full picture.’

Now that Europe is taking action to ensure greater self-sufficiency in the supply of important raw materials, VITO is on hand to help it achieve the objectives laid down in the CRM Act. Thanks to its existing technological expertise and know-how, it is in a position to provide opportunities that will enable Europe's industries to act rapidly. 

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