Richard Holliday, founder of Material Value, talks to AZoM about the importance of critical materials in a new ‘insights from industry’ interview. Interview conducted by Gary Thomas.
GT: Could you please provide a brief introduction to the industry that Material Value works within and outline the key drivers?
RH: Material Value provides consultancy services centred around materials technology. We work with clients to identify new materials, evaluate market opportunities, solve technology challenges and commercialise innovations. We work both on technical issues, as well as more strategic, business development activities – but ‘materials’ is the broad, common thread drawing all of our work together.
GT: What are the key sectors that Material Value can assist in?
RH: As you might expect with the name Material Value, we have extensive experience in materials technology. This includes nanotechnology, and the applications associated with these materials. But ‘materials’ is intrinsically interdisciplinary, so we also have experience in materials in their broadest sense; catalysts/chemicals, semiconductors/electronics, cleantech applications, medical applications, materials recycling and coatings, to name just a few.
We are fortunate to have an extensive network of research, technology and business contacts in a range of industries, across Europe, the Far East and North America, able to work on specific projects. For a small company we cover a broad range.
GT: In what regions does Material Value usually operate, or is it a global company?
RH: We are based in the UK, just outside of Oxford. It’s a great area to be located in; the triangle from Oxford to Cambridge to London is awash with leading universities, high-tech companies and innovation. Whilst it isn’t quite on the level of silicon-valley yet, it’s certainly a major, growing hub of innovation and technology in the UK. About half of our clients are based outside of the UK.
GT: Why is a good knowledge of material science essential when starting up a business?
RH: I’m personally very passionate about the field of materials. Materials are essential to economic growth and business competitiveness.
As AZoM users will know, a vast and growing range of material technologies are deployed in numerous applications, across every industry and market. Whatever business you are involved in – materials play a key role.
GT: What are strategic or critical materials?
RH: Strategic or critical materials (mostly metals but not all), are elements that are integral to a particular nation's defence, energy or other vital industry, but which are at risk of supply disruptions. Slight differences in the terms 'strategic materials' and 'critical materials' can be explained but the two phrases are largely used interchangeably by those working in this field.
There is no universal agreement on which materials are strategic or critical, which is not surprising given that each country, industry and company has a mix of economic and technical requirements from the materials it uses. The US Department of Energy currently defines neodymium, dysprosium, europium, terbium and yttrium as 'critical'. The European Union most recently defined neodymium, dysprosium, tellurium, gallium and indium at 'highest risk'.
Other organisations have undertaken similar assessments leading to a long-list of elements that may in some circumstances fall into the strategic or critical categories. This has included tungsten, niobium, platinum and beryllium.
GT: Is the current demand for critical materials sustainable?
RH: This is a fast-moving issue. New mines are being developed to increase supply of many supply-constrained minerals and a huge amount of research is currently underway to substitute critical materials for more widely available alternatives. Both have the potential to change the importance of a specific material.
With China being the dominant leading supplier of many materials, countries and companies are right to be concerned about this issue. But it is important to look beyond the headlines and into the detail to gain a true picture and devise an appropriate strategy.
GT: Material Value has recently collaborated on a white paper with Cientifica – could you give an overview of this?
RH: Our white paper Simply No Substitute? took a critical look at the current technology and policy landscape in this area of critical materials. We have explained how a huge amount of research and development is currently taking place in academic and industrial research laboratories, with the aim of developing novel, innovative material substitutes or simply to ‘engineer-out’ critical materials with new designs. For example, our analysis showed the number of patents related to substitutes for rare earth elements has doubled in the last two years.
In an effort to ensure the interests of end-users are represented across this increasingly complex and rapidly developing issue, the publication proposed the creation of a new industry body. This would benefit not just end-users, but also primary and secondary producers of critical materials, for who it is currently only feasible to have sporadic and inconsistent interaction with the diverse range of industries that use their materials.
GT: How do you see the field of material science developing over the next decade?
RH: As with most things in life, it is hard to ignore the growing importance of China. A recent report from Thomson Reuters pointed out that China’s research output has grown from a barely detectable presence of fewer than 50 papers in 1981 to the single largest country producer of materials research, overtaking both USA and Japan. As this research becomes more application orientated, I expect to see some really interesting commercial materials technologies coming out of China.