The critical Role of Metals in the Transition to a Circular economy

Wednesday 14th September 2022

Theatre :  Sustainability and Circular Economy 

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Historically, the discovery, development and application of metals have set the pace for the evolution of human civilisation, driven the way that people live, and shaped our modern societies. Today, metals are the backbone of the global manufacturing industry and the fuel for economic growth. In the UK, the metals industry comprises 11,100 companies, employs 230,000 people, directly contributes £10.7bn to the UK GDP, and indirectly supports a further 750,000 employees and underpins some £200bn of UK GDP. As a foundation industry, it underpins the competitive position of every industrial sector, including aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, defence and general engineering.

However, extraction and processing of metals are very energy intensive and cause severe environmental damage: the extraction of seven major metals (Fe, Al, Cu, Pb, Mn, Ni and Zn) accounts for 15% of the global primary energy demand and 12% of the global GHG emission. In addition, metals can in theory be recycled infinitely without degradation, saving enormous amounts of energy and CO2 emission. For instance, compared with the extraction route, recycling of steel saves 85% of energy, 86% GHG emission, 40% water consumption and 76% water pollution. Moreover, metals are closely associated with resource scarcity and supply security, and this is particularly true for the UK, which relies almost 100% on the import of metals.

The grand challenge facing the entire world is decoupling economic growth from environmental damage, in which metals have a critical role to play. Our vision is full metal circulation, in which the global demand for metallic materials will be met by the circulation of secondary metals through reduce, reuse, remanufacture (including repair and cascade), recycling and recovery. Full metal circulation represents a paradigm shift for metallurgical science, manufacturing technology and the industrial landscape, and more importantly will change completely the way we use natural resources. Full metal circulation means no more mining, no more metal extraction, and no more primary metals. We will make the best use of the metals that we already have.

Zhongyun FanZhongyun Fan Director of BCAST
Brunel University London

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