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Mining for Greener Technologies

E.U. Faces Shortages of Key Minerals

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The European Union is facing shortages of 14 "critical" raw materials needed for mobile phones and emerging technologies like solar panels and synthetic fuels, according to a study by the European Commission that was scheduled for release Thursday.

The commission is ringing the alarm bell on raw materials as China again plans to tighten its control over its rare-earth minerals by allowing just a handful of state companies to oversee the mining of the scarce elements.

The 14 materials identified by the commission out of 41 minerals and metals it analyzed are antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, indium, germanium, graphite, magnesium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare earths, tantalum and tungsten.

The study found that a key factor behind the shortages is that production of the materials was concentrated in just four countries: China, Russia, Congo and Brazil.

The study underlined that the markets for such materials could be highly volatile because the "rapid diffusion of new technologies can drastically change the demand for critical raw materials."

Demand for gallium for use in emerging technologies could be 603 tons by 2030 compared with total current production of 152 tons, according to the study. Demand for neodymium, a rare earth found in China, could be 27,900 tons by 2030 compared with current production of 16,800 tons.

To tackle the problem, the commission proposed that the European Union improve its recycling policies, develop products that require fewer raw materials and encourage research on finding substitutes.

But the commission also attributed the shortages to the way emerging economies use policies on trade, taxation and investment to reserve their resource bases for their exclusive use.

"We need fair play on external markets," the E.U. commissioner for enterprise, Antonio Tajani, wrote in a draft statement he was scheduled to deliver Thursday at a conference in Spain.

"It is our aim to make sure that Europe's industry will be able to continue to play a leading role in new technologies and innovation, and we have to ensure that we have the necessary elements to do so," Mr. Tajani said in the statement.

The study also recommended that the Union "consider the merits of pursuing dispute settlement initiatives" at the World Trade Organization because "such actions may give rise to important case law."